Q&A with Student Body President Nasser Odetallah ‘25GS
Nasser Odetallah ‘25GS is a proud first-generation student, second bachelor’s degree candidate, and campus leader, serving as Student Body President for the 2023-2024 General Studies Student Council (GSSC). He shares the most memorable moments of his Columbia experience so far, plus his advice for the newest members of the GS community.
What is your GS story?
I grew up in Oklahoma and after finishing high school, I went to college at the traditional age at Yale University. I double majored in chemistry and molecular biophysics and biochemistry. I had always planned to go to graduate school in the sciences and pursue research as a full-time career path, but in my senior year, thinking about the future, I realized that I didn’t actually want to go into the sciences. I started asking myself, really for the first time, what did I actually want to do? What was I interested in?
COVID-19 hit in my last semester and the job I had lined up for the summer fell through because of that. In the interim I volunteered and worked for a nonprofit food business for about a year, and as I was experiencing that, I had the space to continue thinking about my long term plans. I realized that what I really wanted was a second chance at undergraduate education. I had a desire to explore the humanities and social sciences, and to have a different type of undergraduate experience and community than what I had before.
As I was doing some research, I stumbled upon GS, and as I looked into the college, I got more and more excited about it. Not only was it an opportunity for me to earn a second bachelor’s degree, but I was really drawn to the community of people at GS and the fact that the school was essentially based around accessibility. That was something that resonated with me as a first-generation low-income student (FLI), a working student. I had a hard time at my previous university finding a lot of people with similar experiences, and I wanted to be at a place like GS where that was more common, and where the school had specific resources for those students.
"I was really drawn to the community of people at GS and the fact that the school was essentially based around accessibility. That was something that resonated with me as a first-generation low-income student, a working student."
I applied and started at GS in the fall of 2021. I came in thinking I might want to do something in the social sciences and then go to law school. Because of my experiences here though, especially in some core curriculum classes, I’m now double majoring in English and film and media studies with the hope to go to film school and become a filmmaker. None of that is something I would have ever realized or had the confidence to do without coming to GS and having the support, resources, and opportunities I’ve been able to get at Columbia.
Have there been any Columbia professors or classes that have been particularly formative for you?
I would say there’s two professors. The first is my literature humanities professor, Professor Emily Madison. She was really instrumental because she was an amazing resource when I started at GS; her class was literally my first class at Columbia. She was also there as I was thinking through decisions about my career and academic journey, especially never having thought of myself as someone interested in the humanities and the arts. Her class itself also, the books we read and conversations we had, the idea of focusing on narrative and storytelling and the value of that in human society; that’s where I first started realizing how much I enjoyed this from an academic perspective and thinking about doing this creatively as a career.
The second professor is my contemporary civilization professor, Professor Aled Roberts. He was very similar in that he was an amazing, engaging professor and also extremely supportive. He was also my professor in my second year, when I was beginning my journey as an English and film major more seriously and experiencing my first hurdles in those classes, and he was a source of support in that as well.
I’ve had almost unilaterally amazing professors and classes; someone who also comes to mind is Professor Eleanor Johnson of the Department of English and Comparative Literature who I’ve taken three classes with. One of the reasons I wanted to do a second bachelor’s degree was to get a more foundational educational experience and to have more opportunities to get to know professors better, and that’s the experience I’ve had throughout my time at Columbia.
Can you share about your involvement in campus life?
As a first-generation low-income student, I’m really interested in helping and supporting students from that background, so I’m part of two different organizations. The first is Matriculate, a nonprofit that helps high achieving low-income high school students from across the nation apply to top universities, like Columbia. We get matched with students in their junior spring and work with them until they graduate high school. It’s very fulfilling to give advice and support to students who are in the same shoes that I was in many years ago.
The other organization I’m in is the new first-generation low-income student group for GS students called FLAGS (first-gen low-income at GS). A friend of mine who graduated last year started it because she felt strongly that a GS-specific first-generation low-income group was needed. There’s been a lot of support from members of the GS administration and other students for this group, so I’m excited to continue helping it grow and become a permanent organization at GS.
I’m also an admissions ambassador and tour guide for the GS Office of Admissions which has been a wonderful experience. Because GS has a nontraditional student body, I often work with and get to know students individually over a long period of time. There’s been quite a lot of students now who have started at GS that I had talked to on the phone, or met at a meet-and-greet, or given a tour to. It’s really amazing to be able to help students navigate the process of learning about GS.
Last but not least, the biggest thing I’m involved in is student government. I served on the GSSC as First-Year Class President for a semester, Vice President of Policy for two semesters, and for 2023-2024 I’m serving as the Student Body President for GS which is a tremendous privilege.
What are your proudest accomplishments at GS so far?
Definitely being Student Body President this year and getting to help create the foundation so we can put on lots of events, support student life initiatives, and constantly advocate for policy issues such as financial aid, housing, academic policies, dining, and admissions on behalf of our students. Something that’s been amazing and unexpected this year for me has been being able to work closely with the other three undergraduate councils and by proxy the other three undergraduate schools. That’s something that’s been a big commitment this year among myself and the other GSSC Executive Board members, and it’s paid dividends for us: we have such great relationships with them and it’s created a sense of community among our schools and opportunities to share and collaborate on ideas.
On a personal level, I’m also proud of my development at GS. I came here not fully knowing what I wanted to do, and with the support of my Columbia friends and professors, I gained the courage to think bigger about what truly excites me. I’d never before in my life thought of myself as a creative person, but here I’ve been able to trust in myself that I can do that even without prior experience.
What is your advice for new GSers, especially first-generation and low-income students?
The general advice I always give as a tour guide is to, as a new GS student, give yourself the time and grace to experience everything that’s happening here without making immediate judgments about yourself or your academic abilities. Grant yourself time to grow into this place, and to fully embrace everything Columbia offers.
For my fellow first-generation low-income students specifically, my advice is to seek out a community of other students with similar experiences. Your first-generation friends are an infinitely valuable resource, of information, but also kindness and compassion; one of the amazing things about the first-generation college student community is that they tend to be some of the most generous and giving out of all students.
I would add that first-generation students are often very independent because there’s an urgent requirement for self-reliance that other students do not necessarily have. So, my additional advice is to realize that the best way to become fully independent is actually to learn when you need to ask for help from other people. There are so many people who want to offer you support, and I think tapping into that is really important to thriving in a university setting.