Profiles of the Spring 2024 Incoming Class

Meet some of the exceptional members of our incoming Undergraduate and Postbac Premed classes.

January 08, 2024
Incoming student Ahmad Bright


Ahmad Bright

Hometown: Boston, Massachusetts

Prospective Major(s): Economics, political science

My path to GS started over 15 years ago when I first learned of the program. At the time I was incarcerated and unsure if I ever would get the chance to go to college. What was once a dream deferred is now a dream come true. The best advice I ever got was to never give in and to never give up on myself, especially when outside circumstances were encouraging me to do just that.

I applied to GS because it has been an educational goal of mine for around 15 years. Moreover, I am attracted to Columbia's academic rigor, its location in NYC, and GS culture, not least how each student's unique path to GS is uplifted and respected.

Incoming student Delano Burrowes

Delano Burrowes

Hometown: Great Barrington, Massachusetts

Prospective Major(s): Creative writing, African American studies

I spent most of my childhood disappearing into books. My report cards said: He’s great in class, but he doesn’t speak and can barely make eye contact with others. That social anxiety later became too much, especially being a queer black kid in a mostly white town, and I quit in eleventh grade, giving up on education. I felt education had given up on me, too. I later tried classes at a community college, but my insecurities came through, and I didn’t believe in myself enough to stay.

I started working in restaurants, waiting tables, and managing, and was good at it, but being good at something didn't mean it made me happy. Deep down, I was ashamed I hadn’t gone to college and would change the subject when it came up. I was struggling with purpose and passion and felt I was just existing. Drugs and alcohol helped me escape from those feelings.

When I got sober, I started to think about what I wanted in my life, and what would make me happy. I heard about a Bard College program for those returning to or going to college for the first time and was accepted. We held classes at the Brooklyn Library, which felt full circle; libraries had been my sanctuary as a child. It was hard. I’d go to class in the morning and afternoon and wait tables at night, sometimes so exhausted I could barely stand. But, just like getting sober. I did it one day at a time.

I discovered poetry and writing at college, learning that I could tell my story in ways that helped me gain a new perspective on my life and experiences, and those of my ancestors. I had a new confidence in exploring performance art as another form of communication. I was talking about race and bias and people were responding in ways I’d never imagined. I got thousands of letters from people saying my stories, of race, addiction, and identity, were also their stories. My voice was being heard and seen, but it was a collective voice.

I graduated with a 4.0 and I knew the only place I wanted to continue was at Columbia School of General Studies. I wanted to be in an esteemed university with others like me, who have a wide diversity of backgrounds and knowledge. I wanted to learn and write where writers I've admired have both studied and taught. I know I will be challenged in new ways, and I am ready to debate and engage around new ideas and concepts. [But] I wanted to take a break first, though, and continue helping others find their voice.

I created a multi-city ongoing art and discussion series, The Great Barrington Project. In each location, I’d sit in public and invite people, anyone passing by, to sit across from me and make eye contact for as long as they wanted. I wanted them to think about how they do or do not see a Black person in the world. At the end of the week, there was a community discussion, where local Black residents can talk about their experiences living in the area. In Great Barrington, there were many shares about how bias-based trauma had created negative relationships with schools. We also heard what it was like to live in a place where nuances of racism can be both prevalent and dismissed. In Reading, PA, considered one of the poorest cities in the country, Black people gave faces and voices behind that categorization. Why is ‘poor’ a bad thing, and what conditions play into that poverty?

In 2022, I was nominated and selected to be the 2023 W.E.B. Du Bois lecturer at Bard College Simon’s Rock. When I got the confirmation, I went online and looked at the names of the people who’d given the lecture in the past. Famous Artist. Pulitzer winner. Head of the National NAACP. Writers whose books I’d read. And now, a person who never thought his voice mattered in the world.

The title of my talk was The Languages Black Folks Speak: Letting Go of The Myth About Finding Our True Voice. After the talk, I got a standing ovation, hundreds standing, and it was not just my moment but one for so many who thought their moment had passed.

At that time, I also co-founded and am now the current vice-chair of The Blackyard Collective, a nonprofit for queer Black people in recovery from addiction. I get to watch others find joy and liberation from addiction, and have a place where they can talk about racial traumas.

I started working at a nonprofit social justice organization, Multicultural Bridge, in the area I grew up, as a racial justice consultant. I can work on initiatives and actions related to racial equity, using the past of myself and others to inform future changes.

All of this was possible because I went back to school, and I wanted others to have this experience. I started working as a writing tutor with the same program I had graduated from. I now get to be part of the journeys of others in discovering their voices.

Now, it was time for Columbia, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else, but Columbia was the only college I applied to. I had faith, though it was surrounded by fear. When I got the admission letter, I lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling. This moment was so much bigger than me.

It was also for my grandmother, who was widowed with seven young children in dirt-poor and segregated Alabama. She told her kids their way out was through books and education, giving them the books that were thrown out by the wealthy family whose house she cleaned, It was also for my mother, who walked miles to school with white kids on school buses yelling nigger out the window at her. She later moved to very white Massachusetts for a better life for her kids and passed her love of books on to me. She sometimes worked two full-time jobs, in factories and hospitals, for me to have this moment.

It was for all those who think who they were is always who they will be. It was for all those who think nobody will ever see them. It was also for me, current me, but also that little boy who couldn’t speak up and look anyone in the eye. I hid in libraries as a child and now I get to walk and learn, not hide, in Columbia's renowned libraries as an adult.

I felt, truly felt, the emotions of this after going to the Columbia GS new student orientation. Standing outside next to the lion statue, I decided to capture the moment. Two passing women took [a photo] for me on my phone. It was only when I looked at it, that it all became real to me. I now have documentation. I'm the grandson of Mattie Ballard, who had a 7th-grade education but was smart in ways the world didn't recognize. She knew people who'd been lynched and when she was a child, people who'd been enslaved.

Mattie Ballard's grandson was going to an Ivy League school.

I'm not the most emotionally expressive person, but when I went home and looked again at that photo I cried for the first time in a long while. I was crying out of happiness and pride that I'd never given up. This Black, queer, recovering addict, high school dropout was going to Columbia.

Incoming student Sai Sai San Hark

Sai Sai Han Hark

Hometown: Theinni, Myanmar

Prospective Major: Financial economics

I was born and raised in Theinni, a small town in the northern Shan State of Myanmar, which has been marked as a restricted area due to the long-running civil war between ethnic armed organizations and the Myanmar military junta. Before the military coup, I was pursuing my dream of becoming a medical doctor at a medical school in Myanmar for two and a half years. The subsequent military coup in 2021 prompted the closure of my university.

To continue my education, my foster family in New York City, Dr. Myoe Minn and Ryan Thein Lin, helped me to come to the United States. I am immensely grateful for their kindness. Without them, the possibility of achieving anything would not have been possible. Afterwards, I began my journey at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Upon arriving in the States, I faced significant challenges that compelled me to activate my survival mode. I have been working three jobs: waiter at a Japanese restaurant, mentor, and tutor on my campus, all while taking five classes as a full-time student. These jobs have introduced me to the unwavering commitment of immigrants working tirelessly towards their goals. This experience has powerfully underscored the importance of being diligent in my educational pursuits to achieve long-lasting rewards.

During my academic years, I was selected by international organizations to attend youth leadership programs in Japan, Singapore, Rwanda, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. 

Last summer, I had the opportunity to work at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies as a course facilitator for the Entrepreneurship class: Early Ideas to Design. While I was interning there, I came to realize the remarkable dynamism, passion, and supportiveness of the people around me. Being aware of my immigrant background and the challenges I had faced, professors at Columbia frequently reassured me that they were available to provide assistance whenever needed. Additionally, the interactions I had with fellow students at Columbia left a lasting impression. They exhibited an exceptional level of support and an eagerness to explore new avenues, which significantly fascinated me in becoming a part of the Columbia community. I began to envision the benefits of being surrounded by individuals who shared the aspiration for higher education and a deep commitment to their goals. It was then that Columbia GS secured its place as my top choice for education.

I am very grateful and thankful to Columbia GS for awarding me as a recipient of the PALS Scholarship. The Program for Academic Leadership and Service (PALS) Scholarship is awarded to students who demonstrate both the ability to succeed at an Ivy League university, and a commitment to providing service and leadership within their institution or local community.

I am going to major in financial economics. As I eagerly anticipate the start of this transformative chapter in my life, I am super excited about the prospect of attending classes at Columbia, where I will undoubtedly embark on a new beginning.

Incoming student Leah Chevan

Postbac Premed

Leah Chevan

Hometown: Brooklyn, NY

My first exposure to medical learning was the first aid training I received as a lifeguard, back in 2010. It wasn't much, but it was enough to plant a seed of interest. I did my undergrad degree at George Washington University, majoring in biological anthropology, because I thought I was going to be the next 'Bones.' I liked GW because the anthropology department had access to Smithsonian collections and instructors. I was also able to study abroad at University College London for a semester and work with high-grade casts of early hominid remains, including a neanderthal skull.

During the summers, I continued to be a lifeguard, eventually becoming a waterfront lifeguard instructor. In my last semester (fall 2015), I happened to have a free block in my schedule, so I signed up for the EMT class and loved it. Not only did we shadow in the GW Emergency Department and local fire departments, but we also had the opportunity to do mass casualty trauma and triage training at the WMATA training facility.

I wasn't ready to apply to graduate school directly after college, so I decided to join the Navy. I spent six years as a nuclear electronics technician and reactor operator, including over three years attached to the USS Ohio (SSGN 726), a guided missile submarine. While on board, I became the main CPR instructor for my crew and joined our Emergency Medical Assistance Team. Most of the incidents we dealt with involved twisted ankles or similar injuries, but I did get to help a sailor with a severe hand injury keep his finger! Months later he came back and showed me that he had regained the ability to move the digit, and I had a moment of pride.

Right now, I work as a personal trainer, helping people to connect to their bodies and their movements. I love seeing the look on a client's face when they nail an exercise or discover they enjoy a new movement.

In early 2023, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I got very lucky, not only because we caught it early, but also because I had an amazing team of doctors. I had already started looking into different masters and postbac programs, but my patient experience was such that I resolved to find a path for others to have the same experience.

[The best advice I’ve received is] "You can't pour from an empty cup." Burnout is something that gets discussed a lot in the context of both the military and medical fields. I want to stay involved in activities that bring me joy and check in with my network of friends. [For example] After the Navy, I backpacked through parts of Europe, and managed to complete a lifelong dream of hiking Hadrian's Wall. I went at the tail end of the season, so a large portion of the hike was done completely alone. I like the feeling of getting to places using only the power of my own two feet, even if it means that I occasionally get chased by herds of cows (or sheep). I'm hoping to continue hiking on weekends over the semester, and maybe even to hike another one of the UK National Trails in between spring and summer semesters. I'm going to do my best to set boundaries with how much of my energy I dedicate to different tasks - even schoolwork. I'm no good to anyone - clients, classmates, family, or even myself - if I'm burnt out. And the same applies to everyone else!

Incoming student Rachael Hutson

Rachael Hutson

Hometown: Highlands, New Jersey

I completed my undergraduate education at the University of Chicago, where I studied economics and computer science and competed on the varsity soccer and track & field teams. I have always been incredibly curious and drawn to a wide variety of subjects – I attended a small, rigorous STEM-focused high school but am also an avid reader, equally entranced by words as I am by numbers. As an ocean lifeguard growing up, I first gained exposure to first aid and emergency medicine. My experiences on the beach sparked an interest in medicine, but I wasn't yet ready to commit to a schedule full of science courses and labs – I wanted to learn more about business, creative writing, architecture and programming languages. I interned at a private equity firm after my second year of college and immediately fell in love with the fast-paced, challenging environment. Afterwards, it seemed natural to major in economics and pursue a full-time career in the field, which appealed to my curiosity and offered exposure to many different industries. 

However, throughout my first year post-graduation, I spent a significant amount of time supporting a family member undergoing cancer treatment. As I interacted with surgeons, oncologists, and nurses, I realized that these individuals embodied the traits that I value most. My appreciation for these physicians who helped my family navigate a period of paralyzing uncertainty revealed that my fascination with investing paled in comparison to my passion for medicine and helping others.

I applied to GS because of the unparalleled history and strong reputation of Columbia's Postbac Premed program. I have also talked to several current and former students, who speak very highly of the program's academic rigor as well as the quality of advisory support and clinical opportunities offered to students. Because I am completely changing careers and have limited prior experience in the medical field, I wanted to enroll in a program with best-in-class resources to help prepare me for all aspects of the daunting medical school application process. I know that the path ahead will be challenging, but I am confident that Columbia is the right place to begin my medical education and professional journey.

I recently read "The Reasons of Love" by moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt. The essay explores self-love, which Frankfurt defines as liberation from ambivalence. He believes that “enjoying the inner harmony of an undivided will is tantamount to possessing a fundamental kind of freedom.” Frankfurt argues that self-love is the purest form of love; it forces us to grapple with contradictory desires and pursue those most crucial to us. Although difficult to achieve, self-love infuses our lives with meaning and purpose, cultivating alignment between our ambitions, actions, and values. Throughout my GS journey, I aspire to practice self-love by cultivating my passions and prioritizing the pursuits that I wholeheartedly care about most.