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PALS Pave Way for Nontraditional Students at Columbia

High Schoolers
The high schoolers interacted in workshops with current PALS students, most of whom took an atypical route to college after taking time off from their education because of personal or financial hardship.

Photos by Eileen Barroso

By Alex Lyda

Ask Yusuf Abukar (GS ’09) how he went from fleeing bombs as a refugee from Somalia to strolling through the Ivy League environs of Morningside as a Columbia student, and he answers with these words: infinite hope.

In 1999, Abukar was on the cratered streets of a ruined Mogadishu when his teacher approached him about applying to a university in the United States as a way to escape the violence and turmoil and harness his considerable intellectual ability. “What is the best university in the U.S.?” Abukar shot back. “Columbia University in New York City,” said the teacher.

Abukar held on to that goal for five years, struggling amid gunfire and strife. “Going to school under such circumstances was an extravagant luxury,” Abukar says. Eventually, he learned that Columbia had a program through the School of General Studies for nontraditional students—students who take a year or more break from their educational pursuits. “I was confident about one thing,” he says. “Given the opportunity, I would excel and become an outstanding student.”

He made it to Columbia, aided along the way by the Program for Academic Leadership and Service (PALS). Each year, PALS identifies 15 to 18 students for financial aid. No one can apply to become a PALS scholar; instead, top candidates are identified during the admissions process, and recipients are selected by a selection committee.

Jonathan Walton
Up-and-coming poet Jonathan Walton (CC ’08) impressed local high students with his dynamic rhythm.

“What makes this program exceptional is the students: women and men who embody the best of the Columbia tradition; scholars passionate about learning and passionate about giving back through community service and leadership,” says Peter Awn, dean of the School of General Studies. “PALS students, like so many other GS students, would not be able to attend Columbia without the significant financial support they receive from alumni and friends.”

PALS scholars typically are first-generation college students and members of historically underrepresented groups with significant financial need and a demonstrated ability to succeed in a competitive academic environment. They also have a record of community service that they wish to continue while at Columbia.

The program is expanding and reaches out to a global population but still emphasizes homegrown talent.

“We’ve always wanted to focus on the neighborhood around Columbia, including Harlem,” said Scott Halvorson, GS associate dean. “We started by focusing on schools that are nearby, and early on, we realized that the people who came here had never walked across the campus. They never felt it was the place for them. That alone made such a difference, and they felt that they could come back here.”

A PALS symposium on Feb. 16, “No Limits,” featured up-and-coming poet Jonathan Walton (CC ’08). Walton’s dynamic and rhythmic readings, which described how he survived a challenging home environment, wowed an audience of nearly 70 local high school students from Bread and Roses Academy, Frederick Douglass High School and the Manhattan Theatre Lab Magnet High School. The high schoolers interacted in workshops with current PALS students, most of whom took an atypical route to college after taking time off from their education because of personal or financial hardship.

Like Walton, Abukar waxed lyrical about his future at Columbia and the life that awaits after he graduates, in a message that applies to all would-be GS students.

“My inquisitiveness, my patience, my simplicity, my deprivation and, above all, my infinite hope have proven that I can go anywhere and achieve anything I put my mind to.”

Published: Feb 23, 2006
Last modified: Feb 28, 2007