For Ben Shababo, GS ’13, editing films and working in a neuroscience lab are actually pretty similar.
“When you’re editing a film,” the recently named School of General Studies valedictorian said, “you’re trying to control the viewer’s perception.” Similarly, Shababo said that part of neuroscience is "understanding how the brain works through perception."
Administrators announced last week that Shababo would be his class valedictorian and Tiekka Tellier and Damian Harris-Hernandez, both GS ’13, would be salutatorians. While GS has had multiple salutatorians in the past, Dean Peter Awn said in a statement that it was not a regular occurrence.
Tellier and Harris-Hernandez are both being honored, Awn said, because “both have outstanding and congruent academic records and each has a particularly unique background and creative academic program.”
All three have families, previous careers, and a non-traditional educational background.
“I’m jealous of my CC friends,” Shababo said. “One of my friends, he can study all night any night … while I have to have a job and maintain my relationship with my wife.”
Shababo, who hails from Pennsylvania, worked as a film and sound editor before enrolling in GS in the spring semester of 2010. He’s now a neuroscience major, and splits his time between attending classes, working full-time at a neuroscience lab, and taking care of his seven-week old daughter July with his wife Tracey.
“Coming out of high school, my main interests were physics and math,” Shababo said. After high school, he briefly attended Temple University before dropping out to work in film, which he said made the difference between “being paid to learn and paying to learn.”
But Shababo never abandoned his interests in math and science, and he now plans on continuing to work at the lab of neuroscience professor Rafael Yuste for another year before applying to a Ph.D. program. In 30 years, he said, he wants to be a university professor with his own lab.
“Filmmaking is very fun, but I don’t think it would be nearly as long-term satisfying as what I’m doing right now,” Shababo said. “If you want to find a problem that’s not going to bore you for a long time, study the brain.”
While he has only been at Columbia for three years—he has a number of transfer credits from his time at Temple—plenty has happened in that time.
Shababo and two of his friends started a neuroscience journal club called Neurostorm, and he’s been involved in a wide range of activities from tutoring fellow students to serving on the Educational Policy and Planning Committee last semester. He married in 2011.
He said his best advice for students was, “Don’t get bogged down and stressed out … you want to maintain your interest and you don’t want to get lost in the rigor of testing.”
Despite leaving the glamorous world of film and advertising, Shababo has no regrets about coming to Columbia.
“In one place I’m making commercials, and here I’m adding to the collective knowledge of neuroscience,” he said. “It was the best decision I ever made,”
Harris-Hernandez said he had no idea what a salutatorian was when he found out that he had been named one.
“I had to look up what that was,” he said.
Harris-Hernandez studied modern and Ottoman Turkish at GS, a major that seems fitting after years of traveling across the globe.
“Right after high school, I went to Europe,” he said. “I just bummed around Europe for three months on my bicycle.”
When he returned from abroad, he started exploring the United States.
“I also started traveling around the U.S. as well, hopping freight trains, hitchhiking, going on bike trips,” he said. “While I was doing all this traveling, I was also writing.”
Harris-Hernandez said he ultimately wanted to pursue a career in writing, and began to take classes at Borough of Manhattan Community College.
When he eventually transferred to Columbia, he planned to stay on the creative writing track—until he took a course in Columbia’s Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies Department.
“It sparked my interest in the department,” he said.
In addition to his studies, Harris-Hernandez is a founding member of the Columbia Turkish Club.
“My best experiences were actually getting to know professors each year,” he said, especially his language professors.
Harris-Hernandez, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife and has worked part-time while at Columbia, attributes his success to time management, a flexible work schedule, and support from his wife.
“It was kind of a hard challenge, especially in the last few months as I had to finish my thesis,” he said.
After graduating, Harris-Hernandez will spend this summer in Turkey, fully funded by a grant and will intern with a Turkish publishing house.
He will then take a year off to pursue translation projects, including translating Ottoman detective novels, the subject of his thesis.
After a year off, Harris-Hernandez will go to graduate school in Turkey and work toward a master’s degree in Turkish history and literature.
Tellier said she was “deeply honored” when she found out that she had been named one of the two salutatorians, but also was sad that her time at Columbia was coming to an end.
“My experience at GS has really been kind of transformative,” Tellier said. “I realized almost instantaneously that it was coming to an end and that I was going to miss it.”
Tellier has always loved learning, but her aspirations for dance led her away from school at a young age.
“I knew when I was two years old that I wanted to be a ballerina,” she said.
Unlike most young ballerina wannabes, Tellier saw her dream come true—she was a professional ballerina with the Houston Ballet for 17 years.
“I had a wonderful career, and I danced some of the greatest roles in ballet on some of the world’s great stages,” she said.
After Tellier retired from dance, she moved to New York and had a son, who was diagnosed with autism.
While she started her post-secondary education at a local community college, “It was apparent to me very early on that maybe that was going to be a less than fulfilling experience,” she said.
After hearing about GS from a friend, Tellier, then a single mom also juggling a job, decided to apply.
“I didn’t know there was an institution of quality at Columbia that was available to someone with my life circumstances,” she said. “And here it was, at GS.”
Tellier, an art history major, said she loved reconnecting with the arts on an academic level, citing sculpture as one of her favorite classes.
When she started at GS, “I realized that my area of interest was still with the arts,” she said. “But I wanted to explore it in the visual arts and not just in the performing arts, which I had already lived.”
Tellier had to balance motherhood, her studies, and her outside career as a ballet teacher. She said she learned to focus on doing one task at a time, whether it was participating in class or spending time with her son.
“I didn’t sleep very much,” she said.
Tellier’s busy schedule has prevented her from thinking about what she wants to do next when she graduates next month.
“I haven’t had the opportunity yet to explore the world out there and figure out how exactly I am going to apply my Columbia education,” she said. “Once I get my research papers in next week, that is what my project will be.”
She said that she hopes to pursue a career in arts or, inspired by her son, to find a way to use her art background to work with children with special needs.
“The real beauty of having gone to Columbia is that I’ve been given such an enormous set of tools with which to pursue my own interests,” she said. “I think the way it’s ended up, of not having such an extent of ideas of what’s going to happen out there actually leaves me a little bit more flexible to see where my interests truly land and where I feel happiest about being.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Shebabo enrolled in GS in the fall of 2010. He actually enrolled in the spring semester of 2010. Spectator regrets the error.