PALS: Nearly 20 Years of First-Generation Student Success

Kathrin Havrilla
December 01, 2018

It starts as the classic story of the American Dream: Cesar Idarraga ’18 was born in Colombia in a family of four that immigrated to the United States in 1985 in search of better opportunities for their two sons. But after his parents divorced and his older brother was jailed, Idarraga’s grades began to slip dramatically.

His mother, working minimum wage factory jobs, tried to refocus him on college, but she couldn’t articulate why it was the right choice, as no one in their family had ever attended.

Eventually, Idarraga shifted gears, enlisting in the U.S. Army and taking classes at a local community college, before dropping out to care for his mother after her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. When she passed away, Idarraga desperately wanted to fulfill her dying wish for him to complete college, but he just couldn’t afford it. Soon, a phone call from Columbia University School of General Studies (GS) Program for Academic Leadership and Service (PALS) would change everything for the better. A math major who graduated in May, Idarraga found his foothold at Columbia.

“PALS provided me the opportunity to attend one of the best universities in the world at no cost. I’ve found an elite community of self-evaluation and self-integrity here, and I know I can overcome any struggle.”

Access + Support = Opportunity

Created at GS in 1999, PALS helps students just like Idarraga fulfill their goals of not just a college education, but a degree from one of the finest institutions in the world—tuition-free and with all of the academic and emotional support they’ll need.

“There are lots of similar programs that provide the financial support,” says Sara Remedios, Associate Dean of Students and Director of Academic and Learning Initiatives, who joined the GS administrative team in 2014. “But at PALS, we know that, as Harvard sociologist Anthony Jack has said, providing access without support is not opportunity. Our goal is to build a community that supports one another through the inevitable challenges of being a student at an Ivy League university—to really make GS feel like a home for our students.”

While there is no “typical” PALS scholar, they do share a few things in common: They are first-generation college students from historically underrepresented groups at Columbia who have both high financial need and a history of high academic achievement.

“Each of our students is exceptional,” says Remedios. “Whether they were born and raised here in the city, or they come from halfway across the world—and New York is a completely new place, they all bring incredible life experiences and passions to the table. Having them in our community makes it richer.”

Making the World a Better Place

Another strong component of PALS is the service work that students undertake.

“The idea of PALS is to pay forward opportunity,” says Remedios. “We require 15 hours of leadership or service per semester, but students regularly double or triple this commitment because they have such a strong passion for serving others.”

Even before they enroll in GS, PALS scholars are deeply involved, from working on the prison justice movement to developing sustainability initiatives to championing women’s rights.

One such example is Jena Diawara ’18, who came to the United States after high school from Mali in West Africa. After obtaining her associate’s degree in chemistry from Georgia Perimeter College, was thrilled to be accepted to GS and be selected for PALS.

“Coming from Mali, you don’t expect to go to an Ivy League school,” says Diawara. “After I was accepted, I began to think about all of the people just like me in Africa who don’t have the opportunity to go to school, and I wanted to do something to help.”

Diawara created Education Outreach, an academic training program that helps students in West Africa pass their high school and college entry exams through videos, class exercises, and guest speakers for added motivation.

“We went to Mali for the pilot program of Education Outreach and taught one year of math in one month,” says Diawara. “Thirty children attended every day, and they loved this opportunity for education so much that they cried when we had to leave.”

Since graduating from GS, Diawara is working on Education Outreach full-time, along with her team of Columbia students from across the University’s schools and colleges. Her goal is to build a permanent formation center in Mali so that the young students can reach the potential she knows a strong education can give them.

PALS has been an inspiration for me; it changed the way I see life. Success is about finding your full potential and helping others do the same. Every student here is dedicated to changing the world and making it better.

Jena Diawara '18

Columbia Leading the Way Among Top Universities

Thanks to increasing availability of higher education and a priority on growing diversity, the national college landscape is changing. But while the National Center for Education Statistics estimates that around 30 percent of all entering freshmen are first-generation college students, most elite universities across the United States still have a little catching up to do, with according to the New York Times, their first-generation first-year numbers coming in around 12-15%.

Columbia is unique among peer institutions, with first-generation student numbers that meet the national average—nearly double that of other elite schools. Thanks in part to programs like PALS, the School of General Studies can continue to fulfill its mission to offer a horizon of opportunities to nontraditional students from all backgrounds.

Supporting Passions; Realizing Dreams

Randy Armas ’15 came to GS and PALS after growing up in Cuba. He left with his family for political reasons and reunited with family in Miami. After starting as a premed student at GS to follow in his father’s footsteps, Armas realized that his real love was in architecture, and opted to change majors with the support of PALS.

“Changing my degree to architecture meant adding on another year of school,” says Armas. “But I want to make something beautiful out of my life. I had the full support of the people in PALS, from the administrators to my fellow students, and I know now that I wouldn’t be where I am without their help and encouragement.”

These days, Armas is in his last year of obtaining a graduate degree in architecture at Columbia, where he uses space as a medium to foster relationships. He has spent the past two summers getting handson experience at architectural firms in Tokyo and Berlin, and hopes to stay in New York after graduating to start his career.

“When I started at Columbia, I felt like a bit of an outcast, but I found my family here through a group of students with movie-quality hardship stories who have transcended into courageous, intelligent, successful people. I’ve discovered all that I want to be and achieve in life, and I have PALS to thank for that.”

This article first appeared in the 2017-2018 issue of The Owl alumni magazine.