2020 Class Day Speakers Announced

Dean Lisa Rosen-Metsch has announced the featured speakers for the 2020 Columbia University School of General Studies Class Day ceremony. The Class Day Keynote Speaker will be Michael Novak '09. The Class of 2020 Valedictorian will be Sungtae Yoon. The Class of 2020 Salutatorian will be Alison (Ali) Block.

May 06, 2020
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Dear Graduating Seniors in the Class of 2020,

I look forward to celebrating your graduation at this year’s virtual Class Day ceremony on Monday, May 18, which will go live at 11 a.m., and again at the University’s 266th Commencement on Wednesday, May 20 at 11 a.m., when President Bollinger will officially confer your degrees via web broadcast. As noted in my last message, I am fully committed to plans for a future in-person Class Day when it is safe to do so.  

In celebration of your accomplishments, I am thrilled to announce the Class of 2020 keynote speaker, valedictorian, and salutatorian.

Class Day Keynote Speaker | Michael Novak ’09

This year’s Class Day keynote speaker is Michael Novak, Artistic Director of the Paul Taylor Dance Foundation. In 2018, he became the second-only person to hold this position in the history of the Foundation, upon the death of Founding Artistic Director Paul Taylor the previous month. Michael has been a critically-acclaimed member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company since 2010, having performed 56 roles in 50 dances of its ever-expanding repertoire in 130 cities in 17 countries. 

Raised in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, Michael began studying dance at age ten. Upon graduating high school, he was offered a Presidential Scholarship to attend the University of the Arts in Philadelphia to pursue training in jazz and ballet. The following year, he undertook an apprenticeship at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet Society, where he remained until 2004.

At GS, Michael was awarded several scholarships for academic excellence. He was a founding member of the Columbia Ballet Collaborative, the University’s critically-acclaimed, student-run resident company, and was named artistic associate, responsible for advising on the curation of resident choreographers and directing the group’s branding and promotion. Academically, he immersed himself in the study of dance history, which ignited his passionate devotion to modern dance. Michael developed a keen interest in the work of François Delsarte, the 19th-century French movement theorist who codified the system linking emotion and gesture that would inspire the first generation of American modern dancers. A highlight of his studies at Columbia was performing Mr. Taylor’s solo in Aureole, which led him to embrace the Taylor repertoire. In 2008, Michael graduated magna cum laude from Columbia, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

In a 2009 program celebrating Diaghilev at Columbia’s Miller Theatre, Michael embodied Vaslav Nijinsky’s role in L’Après-midi d’un faune with an authenticity that brought him to the attention of dance critics and scholars. He has since performed works by Bill T. Jones and Stephen Petronio and danced with Gibney Dance and the Daniel Gwirtzman Dance Company. He has also studied at Springboard Danse Montreal under Alexandra Wells and Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie.

Michael’s debut as a member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company in the 2010-11 season earned him a nomination for the Clive Barnes Foundation Dance Award. In announcing Michael’s appointment as Artistic Director Designate in March 2018, Mr. Taylor said, “Michael has mastered our repertory and steeped himself in dance history. He understands the need to nurture the past, present, and future of modern dance. I look forward to working with him and preparing him to assume artistic leadership of my Company.”

Valedictorian | Sungtae Yoon

The valedictorian of the Class of 2020 is Sungtae Yoon. Sungtae grew up in South Korea, and pursued a nontraditional path well before coming to GS, following the Korean adage: take a detour to find the way. While studying biotechnology at Korea University, Sungtae felt it was important to gain additional life experience before continuing his education, and paused college to pursue missionary work and complete his military service for the Republic of Korea as an Army Sergeant. During his service, he received ministerial commendation by the Minister of National Defense for his contribution to public relations. When Sungtae subsequently chose to return to college, he decided to continue his education in the United States.

During his time at GS, Sungtae worked as a research assistant in Dr. Xin Zhang’s lab at the Columbia University Department of Ophthalmology, and was selected to participate in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program. Under the guidance of his mentors, he worked on in vitro and bioinformatic research, investigating FGF-induced transcription factors in murine lens and lacrimal gland development, which led to a first-authored poster presentation and co-authorship for articles published in peer-reviewed journals.

Outside of his research, Sungtae served as executive officer of the At Your Service volunteer program for the Terence Cardinal Cooke End-of-Life Care Hospital, as well as a student scholar for the Columbia Research Cluster for Science and Subjectivity. He was a student consultant for 180 Degrees Consulting, a worldwide non-profit consultancy, assisting clients from diverse sectors, and also volunteered as a Korean language medical interpreter for Mount Sinai Hospitals.

Sungtae was named to the dean’s list, and was inducted into the GS Honor Society, Asimov Society, and Phi Beta Kappa with 21 A-pluses on his transcript. He graduates summa cum laude with a degree in biological sciences with departmental honors. After graduation, he will engage in clinical research and global health projects, and pursue medical school to become a physician. Sungtae lives in Monterey, California with his wife and 16-month-old child.

Salutatorian | Alison Block

The salutatorian of the Class of 2020 is Alison (Ali) Block, a professional ballet dancer originally from Cleveland, Ohio. From an early age, Ali balanced the rigors of dance with a challenging academic schedule. She began her ballet training at the Cleveland School of Dance, and as she progressed, pursued more advanced training at North Carolina School of the Arts, with summers dedicated to completing intensives at Canada’s National Ballet School, Chautauqua Institution, Jacob’s Pillow, and BalletX. 

After graduating simultaneously from both high school and conservatory in 2008, Ali spent an additional year training at Miami City Ballet School before she was contracted by the Texas Ballet Theater in Dallas/Fort Worth. Her exceptional talent and work ethic afforded her the opportunity to spend the next six years dancing professionally for companies across the United States including the Eugene Ballet Company in Oregon and Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance in Asheville, North Carolina. She also performed as Clara in The Radio City Christmas Spectacular and was invited to be part of the national tour. Ali performed Balanchine’s Serenade at the Hollywood Bowl Opening Night Gala, and is featured in Steve Childs’s documentary And We Will Dance.

In 2014, Ali relocated to continue her professional ballet career as a freelance artist in New York City while pursuing her bachelor’s degree at the School of General Studies. In New York, she has worked as a company member with Eglevsky Ballet, where she created the title role in Maurice Brandon Curry’s Cinderella, and as a company member with Barry Kerollis’s Movement Headquarters Ballet Company, Thomas/Ortiz Dance, Lydia Johnson Dance, and others. She has also performed as a principal guest artist around the country. At GS, Ali studied psychology while continuing to immerse herself in dance. She is an active member and leader in the on-campus student group, the Columbia Ballet Collaborative.

Aside from her involvement with dance, Ali has dedicated much of her time as an undergraduate student to research. She has completed four semesters of honors courses while developing her honors thesis, which examines the role of cultural norms in the workplace on women’s use of voice and reporting of sexual harassment in the world of professional ballet, under the mentorship of Dr. Purdie-Greenaway. In addition to her own work, Ali is a research assistant for the Laboratory of Intergroup Relations and the Social Mind where her work focuses on work environments, work cultures, and the effects these have on company employees. Additionally, she served as a teacher’s assistant in several cultural psychology courses.

On campus, Ali served as both the public relations director and as a mentor for the GS Mentorship Program. For two years, she served as managing editor, campus editor, and writer for Change Magazine, a college magazine across multiple campuses nationwide that discussed social and political issues. 

Ali was named to the dean’s list, was inducted into the GS Honor Society and Phi Beta Kappa, and is a recipient of the GS Service Award for leadership and service within the GS community. She graduates summa cum laude with a degree in psychology. After graduation, Ali plans to continue her career dancing and teaching, while also staying active in the research community. Eventually, she plans to continue her education by pursuing graduate studies in pursuit of a clinical psychology or research role.

Baccalaureate Service | GS Speakers

I am also pleased to announce that Class of 2020 GS graduates Yona N. Benjamin and Nahla Ogeil will speak at the Baccalaureate Service, which will take place on Sunday, May 17 at 10 a.m. via web broadcast.

For more on graduation activities and ceremonies, as well as a graduation checklist, please see the Graduation section of the GS website.

Congratulations! I look forward to celebrating this great accomplishment with you.


Lisa Rosen-Metsch
Dean and Professor