Joseph Ayala, CC ’94 and a first-generation college student, described his first year at Columbia as “rough.”
And “rough” could sum up the recent history of the Double Discovery Center, an organization based out of Columbia College that assists low-income, first-generation students graduate high school and enroll in and finish college. Ayala will become the new executive director of the center, replacing Interim Executive Director Emily Ford on Feb. 10.
The 49-year-old program experienced an exodus of staff in 2010 after employees complained about declining academic standards, poor financial management, and then-Director Kevin Matthews’ leadership. Students involved in the program now also talk of “curveballs” that have posed more recent challenges.
But Ayala, who said that a lot of his undergraduate friends at Columbia were in DDC, believes he has the expertise to help students who are just as confused as he was adjust to life at Columbia.
“I had a lot of experience with DDC, not as a volunteer or worker, but pretty much through the circle of friends that I had when I was at Columbia,” Ayala said. “Just about all of them had a connection to DDC.”
“All of my experiences kept leading me back to that feeling of wanting to share the chances that I had, because in many ways what makes me a fit for DDC is that I have a similar background to a lot of the kids that participate in the program,” he said.
Ayala said his biggest challenge for now is garnering support for the organization.
“Even though DDC is a part of Columbia College, it has elements of the independent nonprofits, where the real challenge on a year-to-year basis is seeking and securing the support you need for your program,” Ayala said.
He pointed to his extensive experience working for nonprofits as something that will help him in his new role. Most recently, Ayala led Publicolor, a nonprofit youth development program that focuses on arts education.
His experiences there, he said, taught him how to handle the challenges of securing backing for a nonprofit organization.
“Volunteer engagement, fundraising, individual donors, institutional donors—I had my hands in everything at Publicolor,” Ayala said.
Jonah Smith, CC ’14, began working at Double Discovery during his first year and said he believes that the program needs to remain dedicated to pushing its students to achieve success.
“Maintaining the level of accomplishment that they have is nontrivial,” Smith said. “Columbia offers a lot of institutional support to the Double Discovery Center and it’s incredibly valuable, but occasionally they throw these curveballs that make it hard to maintain the success.”
Smith identified one of those curveballs as space constraints. The program had to leave JJ’s Place in the summer of 2012 and relocate its study halls to the organization’s smaller office in Lerner. As a result, DDC had to cut the number of study halls it held per week.
Despite the hiccups, Jennifer Ding, CC ’14 and one of the co-presidents of the Double Discovery Student Organization, said she’s happy with the success of the program.
“From our graduating seniors, we have a 90 percent matriculation rate into college and that has been pretty consistent for the past five years,” Ding said, adding that many students from the program also matriculate to Columbia.
Jean-Franco Diaz, CC ’16, is one of those students. Diaz took SAT prep courses with the DDC when he was in high school and came back to tutor for the organization once he started at Columbia.
“I missed the staff and the community of the students,” Diaz said. “Staff is really personable and the students are really sociable, it’s a nice community to get away from the stress of college now and then.”
“I feel like I can always go back and talk to counselors that I had, but it also keeps me aware of how I was in high school and how I can change and better my college experience,” Diaz said.
“I had a rough freshman year,” Ayala said. “Part of my work over the years has been helping young people understand that the transition from high school can be very difficult in so many ways that don't necessarily have to do with academics.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misattributed the quote beginning with "I had a rough freshman year..." Joseph Ayala said the quote, not Jean-Franco Diaz. The Spectator regrets the error.