Profiles of the Fall 2022 Incoming Class
"I became a runaway at 17. I chose New York City as my new home because I dreamt of it since I was a little boy. The homophobic culture of small-town America drove me away and I could not imagine returning to an academic environment after what I had endured in high school. New York pulled the grit out of me and I began to view life as an adventure. I worked in restaurants and ran a dog walking service with my partner, Lawrence. I fell apart when Lawrence suddenly got sick and died from a rare autoimmune disease. I was attending Aveda Beauty School in Soho at the time and I pushed myself to complete the course. I threw myself into work and soon developed an amazing career in beauty. I had the honor of traveling the world working on photo shoots (Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Elle, Paper, Vanity Fair), and music videos (Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, Fergie, Madonna). I also worked on Madonna’s Madame X World Tour.
I’m an avid reader and although many books have influenced my life, it was Viktor Frankl’s “Man's Search for Meaning” that profoundly changed me. His story of surviving the unimaginable made me realize how incredible the human brain really is, and I began my academic journey that introduced me to amazing experiences. I conducted secondary research on LGBT+ issues and presented my work at the UCI Annual Honors Research Conference. I participated in Human-Computer Interaction research at UCLA. I also became a NASA scholar through the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars program, where I studied the history of space travel and NASA’s plans to explore Mars. It felt as though I were chopping away at past emotional baggage with each new experience. I was achieving something that no one in my family had ever imagined attaining. Encouragement from professors boosted my confidence and I pushed myself to not only earn my place at Columbia, but to break the barriers surrounding higher education. Now I am a Comp Sci major focused on a career as a product manager for influential tech products and software. From homeless gay youth to tenacious New Yorker, to becoming a successful scholar, I am honored to continue this journey at Columbia.
It's not about the destination. It is all about the journey! Have fun, live a little, love someone other than yourself. Help someone other than yourself. You can only keep what you have by giving it away."
Jason Mendoza Montoya
“At 17, I learned the actual cost of being an immigrant. When all my high school friends were applying for college, I didn't know that my specific immigration status would affect me. That was until I received an email from a university in Tennessee telling me that if I didn't have a green card or U.S. citizenship, I would not qualify for any financial aid, not even at a community college. After doing research, I learned that California didn't have such requisites. That summer, after turning 18, I packed my Toyota Camry, filled the gas tank with daydreams, and left the state that never loved me for one that shined with promise. Two thousand two hundred nineteen miles later, I lost my innocence. I got robbed, got a ticket for the total amount in my checking account, and when things were finally working out, was fired from the job that took me months to find. My mother begged me to come back home and become a cleaner like every other Hispanic person in my town. I refused. I couldn't give up my dream of going to college. She then told me I had an aunt in the Bronx, and she was willing to take me in. Without hesitation, I packed my Toyota Camry once again, and I drove 2,974 miles from Los Angeles to New York for one more chance at an education.
That chance didn't come until a few years later, with three days left of legal status in the U.S. It was sudden, but on my last day of legal status, I received a text with a status update. That status update left me wandering for miles aimlessly and ultimately ending up at the Brooklyn Bridge, looking at the American flag with tears in my eyes.
With a green card in my possession, I finally had all green lights towards a future I’d only dreamt of. I decided to go back to school to become a role model for my two younger brothers and to make my mother proud. She raised us on her own and I wanted to make sure that she could see that her efforts were not in vain. Having been away from school for three years, I had to start small and build my skills again. That's precisely what Guttman Community College helped me do. There, I began to excel as a student, became the school's Phi Theta Kappa chapter president, and was a peer mentor to students.
Then suddenly, a most unexpected letter arrived in the mail from Columbia University. "Jason, like you, I shined in community college..." It took me a moment to realize Columbia University had sent me a letter. I now had a new goal. I couldn't help but remember being in a shelter at 12 years old watching Legally Blonde, and I knew that someday I'd be just like Elle Woods and come to a place where I could be anything I wanted to be, on purpose. On May 1, 2022, that dream came true. For the first week of Jumpstart, I tried to hold back tears on my way to Morningside Heights.
I know I can be successful at Columbia because I know that I am possible. When times get rough I'll remember all the different places I could've been now and understand that I am here not by accident but for a reason. There can be miracles when you believe.”
“Reflecting on my journey to Columbia, I appreciate the failures and hurdles I’ve experienced. I struggled with addiction through high school and college, investing my energy in things that derailed my success. In and out of rehab and jail, I took myself out of school. Following a path of self-discovery and recovery, I eventually found myself able to pursue my true passions and interests. It started small. Finding a job, living independently, making the next right decision after another: That was my path, one step at a time.
I eventually found myself re-enrolled in community college, exploring the subjects that inspire me. With new insight on the things I truly cared about, I returned to school revitalized and I recognized my potential and ability to reach my goals if I tried hard enough. At Columbia, I hope to exercise that same grit for success. I believe this environment, an environment that can push me to my potential while utilizing all the resources at my disposal, will allow me to make a difference in the world, including fulfilling my dream of becoming a doctor. I want Columbia to be a part of that story, where I raise the bar of my own potential and explore a new world of diversity and experiences.
Though I speak a lot about success, the greatest piece of advice I’ve received was about failure: ‘Fail fast and fail often.’ I am certain I wouldn’t have made it to where I am today without my failures. Failures allowed me to discover what doesn’t work, where my weaknesses are, how to persevere, and, most importantly, humility. Nothing worthwhile comes without trial and error. To experience personal failure and learn from it is the greatest gift someone can receive. I hope to bring what I’ve learned from my failures to Columbia, and to embrace the challenges here that I might have once feared.”
“I was born and raised in Hong Kong, and attended a very competitive high school growing up. I became obsessed with grades and felt the need to be high performing in everything. After graduating high school, I was meant to go straight to college, but I ended up having to drop out after five days due to mental health struggles. I took a year off school and went to two different mental health treatment centers during the end of 2021 and the start of 2022.
After taking a year off of school and seeking mental health treatment, I realized that I wanted to still have an education and pursue my dream of becoming a therapist myself. However, given my mental health struggles, I was unsure if this would be possible. Finding GS was my savior as it was an opportunity to attend school with the flexibility of being a nontraditional student. My goal at GS is to receive my bachelor’s degree in psychology which will lead me to becoming a therapist, where I can help others who have had similar struggles to mine. School and education have always been extremely important to me, and GS is allowing me to still experience school while being a mentally ill individual.
The best advice I’ve received is that every bump in the road leads you to become a stronger person. I will carry this with me at GS as I know there will be times of struggle, but these bumps in the road are what will make me a more resilient person and help me gain perspective on the world.
A fun fact about me is that I’ve been writing poetry since I was 11 and I now have an Instagram account (@louisaachoi) dedicated to sharing my work. GS allows your personal areas to no longer be looked at as a fallback, but something to be proud of. You deserve an education and to be able to pursue your dreams no matter your background."
“As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I majored in math. I was originally planning to go to graduate school and pursue an academic career. But then, in my 3rd year of college, a few things happened that changed my path. At the time, the governor of Illinois was waging massive cuts to education, healthcare, and other critical services across the state. Illinois’ budget cuts felt personal to me as my dad had struggled with several mental health issues and was in and out of hospitals. I wanted to find a way to get involved, to push back against the cuts. Through volunteering as a community organizer, I found a meaningful way to contribute. From the first training I attended, I understood I was becoming a part of something bigger than myself, or than any simple volunteer role. I began to learn lessons about the world—about how power operated, and how it could be redistributed. I also learned lessons about myself; it was through community organizing that I first began to understand my own struggles and those of my immigrant family as the product of structural forces, rather than personal failings.
That was the start of my career as a community organizer. In the next six years, my work took me from organizing civil disobedience on the streets of Chicago, to building and developing student groups across 8 states in my first job after college, to serving as the field director of Bernie Sanders’s campaign in Iowa. It was always more than a job. Through organizing, I was able to build relationships with people from all walks of life. I learned how to be a leader, and was lucky enough to be able to train and inspire others who, like me, may never have seen in themselves the potential to create change in their communities.
I have always been driven by a strong sense of purpose. My mother, uncles and grandparents immigrated to the United States from Taiwan and spent much of my childhood learning how to take care of each other in a new and often unforgiving environment. Watching my family care for each other imbued me with a deep commitment to ensuring that people are able to live their healthiest, happiest lives. It was that commitment that first led me to community organizing.
Recently, I had the experience of taking care of my father, who has late-stage dementia. Last year, as his condition worsened, I moved to Tennessee. I thought it might be my last chance to spend time with him. Many of the skills that I first learned in organizing helped me navigate his care: patience, a focus on what’s in my control, creativity in trying new tactics, and reservation of judgment. By my third month in Tennessee, his health had improved slightly. I packed up my car and drove away with a deep sense of gratitude for his care team. While I am thankful for the transformative experiences that I have had while working in politics, my time in Tennessee taught me that, for me, there is nothing as fulfilling as intimately caring for someone in a healthcare setting. I am so grateful to be heading to Columbia this fall so I can start my path towards becoming a doctor.”
"Before coming to GS, I was a federal officer stationed at San Ysidro, California, the busiest land border in the world. Approximately 28 million vehicles, 48 million passengers, and 16 million pedestrians seek to cross at this entrance per year, so, as you can imagine, there are few dull moments and unlimited learning opportunities. I worked mainly as an immigration officer and translator assisting refugees seeking immigration relief from their home country. In this position, my passion for medicine ignited as I worked round the clock assisting medical professionals to case officers regarding the overall health and immigration status of refugees and asylees. I have also had the pleasure of working in several overseas positions as a federal diplomat. I was part of assisting Afghan refugees during a time of tremendous need for our country, and became a federal instructor at the Law Enforcement Academy.
Although my job was very rewarding with many great benefits, I missed the stimulation of academics. Working full-time after attending university has made me even more sure of my decision to return to school. The field of national security has taught me that I want to continue to serve people, but in a new way that relates to their overall health. After finishing my BA in psychology at Florida International University, I decided to return to school because I want to pursue a career in medicine and GS is a beautiful bridge to a career path in medicine.
I cannot imagine who I would be without my experiences as a federal officer. I’ve hurdled over so many obstacles I never thought I would. The lessons and skills I learned on the job are ones I plan on bringing to Columbia to add value to our campus. I hope to share my story with fellow students to give them a new perspective on people that have done work similar to mine, and I hope to translate these skills into the field of medicine, where I can influence research being done on campus and, one day, continue to impact my field at the graduate level. My experience as a federal officer has prepared me for the next chapter of my life.
During my journey to GS, some advised me to choose a different career path because it didn’t make sense to step away from a well-paying job to go back to school. Do not let the opinions of others keep you from your passion, and do not let their fears of it make you afraid too. Many people will judge you on your decisions for many reasons you are unaware of. My best advice is always to follow your own convictions. And of course, you have to work for what you want. Nothing gets done without effort. Sometimes you will fail but keep moving. This race is for you and only you. So hold your head high and remember all things work together for your good in some way. They always do if you choose.”
Gabrielle “Gigi” Hodes
“I’m originally from right here in Manhattan, but I lived on a sailboat with my family in the Caribbean for two years and ended up doing middle and high school in Panama. And then my last two years were spent in France at Sciences Po’s Menton campus.
This program was a curveball application for me. I thought I wanted something much more traditional at first. When my dad first showed me the promotional information about it, I immediately shut him down. But I couldn't stop thinking about the opportunity to study both in Europe and the U.S. and finish with two undergrad degrees. Since submitting my application in November 2020 I have not looked back.
Over the past two-plus years, I have learned so much both inside and outside of the classroom. Being surrounded by so many passionate people has been an incredible motivator for me, not to mention an incredible insight into real-life applications of policy and politics. In Menton, I was part of the founding team that brought Global Research and Consulting—a pro-bono consulting organization that empowers students to gain experience while helping 501(c)(3) social entrepreneurships and non-profits improve their work—to campus. I also was part of the board that brought the TEDx conference back to campus after four years, hosting six external speaker experts and six students for a conference themed around division, dilemma, and dialogue.
This summer I completed the first half of my two-summer internship with the U.S. Department of State. From June through August, I worked for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural affairs, which is the branch of the department that fosters exchange and people-to-people diplomacy and oversees the Fulbright Program. Next summer, I’ll be working at a U.S. Embassy overseas!
Now that I am officially at Columbia, I can't wait to continue this learning, whether that be from my professors, TAs, other students, administrative faculty, or anyone in between. I hope to expand my horizons and take advantage of every opportunity an institution like this one has to offer! Whether it be meeting new people, exciting mentorship opportunities, or interesting classes, I am looking forward to it all! One particular thing though would definitely be to meet people from other Dual BA programs or other campuses at SciencesPo. Nobody else quite understands the unique experience of these programs as much as others who have experienced them.”
“I've always been a multidisciplinary student, and I wanted to go somewhere that would help me get a well-rounded and diverse education. Other schools enable this approach, but GS and JTS actively encourage it in a way that I thought was uniquely exciting and alluring. Coming from the San Francisco Bay Area to study at Columbia, I am so excited for the opportunity to explore different academic areas and mix secular and religious education. Not to mention living in New York City and being a part of such a unique community!
I'm currently reading Unthinkable Dreams, a book by my friend and mentor, Yesh Ballon. It's his story of the passing of his mother, intertwined with the national mourning that followed the September 11th attacks. I really fell in love with it while I was reading it on the subway.
A fun fact about me is that I am a Jewish songleader! I make music with children, adults, and families to help foster a love of joyous Judaism at synagogues, summer camps, and wherever Jews are.”
Ana Valeria Vázquez Navas
“Growing up in a small town in Puerto Rico, studying in the United States seemed like an endeavor only a few decided to take. During high school I prepared myself for U.S. college applications as I wanted to get out of the island for my studies. When I found out about the Columbia Dual BA Program with Sciences Po, it seemed like the perfect, unique educational experience. Study at Columbia and in France?! I knew nothing about Sciences Po or Reims—it was later (after I got in) that I truly understood the huge value I would be getting out of my French experience.
When I told my mom about applying to a school in France, she told me not to—she wanted me to stay on the East Coast. However, I applied in secret and when I got in, it was the best news I could ever get. The thought of studying in another country seemed like the perfect adventure to take. And it was—I knew zero French! However, the amazing Dual BA community and student body in general of both institutions, were so supportive and welcoming. I cannot recommend this program enough!
What I look forward to in the next two years is to get to know the amazing Columbia community. This university has so many resources and opportunities that I have yet to discover and use! I look forward to seeing NYC change seasons and all the Christmas decorations. This upcoming winter will be my first winter ever, so I'm definitely planning on getting a very warm jacket.”