The Power of Authenticity, as Individual and as Community

2024 Grad Profile: Hass Agili ‘24GS shares how, after coming to the US as a refugee fleeing discrimination, he forged a new path at GS.

April 28, 2024

Undergraduate Hass Agili was once a medical student in his home country of Libya before threats to his safety forced him to abandon his studies and flee, the road ahead uncertain. A decade later, Agili is a refugee and LGBTQ+ advocate, a recent US citizen, and is graduating from Columbia GS with a degree in psychology and neuroscience. Agili shares his GS journey and the powerful impact of GS’s embrace of diversity and authenticity.

Tell us about your path to GS.

Born in Tripoli, Libya, in 1983, I am the eldest of seven siblings. My early educational journey led me to medical school in Libya, where I was just a few exams shy of earning my degree. However, my path took an unexpected turn due to my sexual orientation, forcing me to leave my country and my medical studies behind. 

In 2016, I arrived in the United States as the only Libyan refugee admitted that year. Navigating life in a new country brought its own set of challenges and learning curves. After nearly three and a half years of attempting to continue my medical education, I faced the reality that I needed to restart my academic journey. This realization brought me to Columbia University’s School of General Studies in 2020, where I chose to pursue a major in neuroscience, embracing a fresh start and a new academic passion. 

What has been your proudest accomplishment at Columbia?

Among the many rewarding experiences I’ve had at Columbia, the most memorable moment was receiving my acceptance letter. Being accepted into such a prestigious institution marked a pivotal point in my life. It symbolized not just a new academic beginning but also a profound personal victory. This acceptance was especially significant considering the challenges I faced in having to abandon my medical studies in Libya due to personal safety risks. Each recognition from my professors and every high grade felt like stepping stones leading me back to that initial joy of acceptance. These moments reminded me of my capabilities and resilience. They reinforced that I was on the right path, turning a once-distant dream into a lived reality, and setting the foundation for a future filled with possibilities.

My time at Columbia has not only been an educational pursuit but also a profound [experience]. While studying at Columbia, I supported myself through various roles, from research positions to interpreting in hospitals, all while navigating the complexities of life in New York City. Starting from scratch wasn’t easy, but it was an essential part of my journey. I built a new social network and experienced the ups and downs of personal relationships. Through perseverance and resilience, I achieved a significant milestone in 2022, obtaining U.S. citizenship. This accomplishment marked a new chapter in my life, allowing me to fully embrace the opportunities and challenges ahead.

Who are some people who have contributed the most to your Columbia experience?

Throughout my time at Columbia, I was fortunate to learn from outstanding professors like Professor Irit Felsen and Professor Herbert Terrace of the Department of Psychology. However, the most instrumental figure during my academic journey was my advisor, Dean Joshua Edwin

Transitioning into the GS program presented its initial challenges, particularly with navigating the complexities of academic life with a background distinctly different from many of my peers. This was compounded by an initial mismatch in advising. Joshua’s entry as my advisor marked a turning point; his profound understanding and unwavering support were pivotal. He was always accessible, ready with precise guidance or answers to my concerns, which significantly smoothed my path towards graduation. Our collaboration was not just effective but deeply meaningful, ensuring I received the utmost benefit from my time at Columbia. His dedication played a crucial role in my academic and personal growth, making my experience at GS truly enriching.

What are your plans for after graduation?

After graduating from Columbia, I am actively exploring the next steps in my career journey. My aim is to integrate my medical background with my degree in psychology to carve a niche in psychiatry. This path offers a fulfilling way to stay connected to the medical field, emphasizing mental health and patient care. 

Currently, I am evaluating various programs that align with my aspirations, ensuring they cater to my unique blend of experiences and academic achievements. My commitment is to contribute meaningfully to the field of mental health, particularly through therapeutic practices, leveraging both my comprehensive background and my passion for helping others.

What advice would you give to a student who's about to start their GS journey?

Embarking on your journey at Columbia’s School of General Studies, you’re entering an exceptional community, uniquely attuned to the diverse life experiences and rich backgrounds of its students. My advice to anyone starting at GS is to embrace your authentic self. This school is perfectly crafted for individuals who bring real-world experiences into the academic arena. Your presence enriches the learning environment, benefiting not just yourself but your peers who gain from your insights. 

Approach this chapter with openness and courage. Take it one day at a time, and remember, you are in excellent hands. Relish the educational ride and remain open to the myriad of new things you will learn. At GS, the blend of traditional academics with real-life perspectives ensures that your education will be as profound as it is practical. So, stay true to who you are, and be confident that this journey will equip you with deeper understanding and new perspectives, enhancing both your personal and professional growth.