Columbia University

Posted on June 1, 2009

School of General Studies

Since 1982, the Charlotte W. Newcombe Foundation has committed more than $750,000 to support mature women enrolled full or part-time at Columbia University School of General Studies (GS). GS was created specifically for the type of student who Charlotte W. Newcombe sought to support–returning and nontraditional students who possess exceptional academic potential and have financial need. Unlike many academic degree programs for returning or nontraditional students, GS students are fully mainstreamed into the Columbia undergraduate program and take the same courses, with the same faculty, and earn the same degree as all other undergraduates. One current student, Andrea Lujan, a mature woman with parental responsibilities and who struggles with the high cost of her Ivy League education, expressed her gratitude for Columbia’s program and for Newcombe Scholarship support by saying, “I really don’t know how I would do it without the Newcombe Scholarship. I would not be here without it.”

The Newcombe Foundation celebrates that Mature Students are welcomed by Columbia’s School of General Studies and offered opportunity and support as they navigate the challenges of earning an undergraduate degree.

Shortly after giving birth to her daughter, Lilliana, Andrea Lujan had an epiphany. Despite having built a career as a dancer, choreographer, and actress in Santa Fe, New Mexico; despite volunteering for women’s organizations like the Santa Fe Rape Crisis and Trauma Treatment Center and the Esperanza Shelter for Battered Families; and despite having become a mother for the first time, she still felt incomplete. “There was still so much I had to accomplish,” she says. “I had not yet fulfilled my dream.”

That dream was to complete the education Lujan had put on hold after high school. It is a dream that she is now fulfilling at the School of General Studies at Columbia University (GS).

Lujan went on to earn an associate’s degree with honors at Santa Fe Community College, an experience that only left her craving more — “more knowledge, more information.” She was preparing to attend a state university when a chance visit to the Columbia campus convinced her that her future lay instead with GS. “I just fell in love with it,” she says. “It was an instant realization that I could be myself here. I could see my daughter running across campus; I could see myself sitting on the steps of Low Library. It just felt right.”

Now in her second year, Lujan credits GS with opening her eyes to a world of learning that she would not otherwise have beheld, and to a path that she could not have foreseen. After completing her undergraduate degree in art history with a minor in English — a Chicana of Mexican heritage, Lujan views both disciplines “through a comparative Latina lens” — she plans to earn both a law degree and a masters in Latino art and literature. Ultimately, she hopes to return to New Mexico to resume her work in support of women’s advocacy groups.

Columbia University

Andrea Lujan was selected as the student keynote speaker at the annual GS Scholarship Celebration, an event to honor the significant academic achievement of GS students who are bestowed the honor of a named scholarship.

Columbia has a long history of serving Mature Students. When pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart enrolled in adult education classes offered through the Columbia University Extension Teaching program in 1920, just two years after serving as a nurse during the Spanish flu pandemic and two years before breaking the women’s altitude record, she became one of the first women with an established career to attend the University. She would not be the last.

Extension Teaching begat University Extension, which begat General Studies. (The school’s name referred both to its bachelor’s degree offering and to the medieval European institutions known as studia generalia, which served a broad array of students and scholars and laid the foundations of the modern university.) The success of GS and its predecessor institutions meant that women students and faculty members would be an integral part of the Columbia community throughout the twentieth century.

Continuing its tradition of offering innovative educational opportunities to adults, today GS enrolls small business owners, accountants, professional actors and musicians, single parents, and new Americans. Women make up sixty-six percent of a diverse GS student body whose average age is twenty-nine.

Columbia University believes that people should be given the opportunity to pursue a rigorous education regardless of age. It also believes that the entire community benefits from the diversity and life experience that nontraditional students bring to the undergraduate classroom. As a result, GS students are fully integrated into the traditional student body, and not restricted to evening classes taught by adjunct faculty.

Instead, GS nurtures nontraditional students, supporting them with an admissions process that recognizes their life experience and offering flexible scheduling options, individualized academic advising, and academic support services all tailored to adults.

Beginning with the application process, GS caters to returning students while staying true to the academic mission and standards of the University’s Faculty of Arts & Sciences. The admissions process requires students to submit academic transcripts, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, and an in-depth personal statement. While the Admissions Committee seriously considers past academic performance and test results, it also carefully examines each applicant’s autobiographical essay and career history in order to determine her ability to successfully complete the Columbia bachelor’s degree.

Once enrolled, GS students attend classes during the day and evening. They work side by side with traditional-aged college students and are held to the same academic standards as all Columbia University undergraduates. The sole difference: GS students are able to complete the bachelor’s degree requirements at their own pace, and need not finish the degree within four to five years.

To help manage scheduling, navigate more than seventy academic programs, and balance schoolwork with family and employment responsibilities, all GS students are assigned an advisor who provides individualized support for the duration of their program. Having the same advisor throughout affords a degree of continuity that is highly beneficial to GS students as they work to achieve their academic goals. Newcombe Scholar Janine Baker, for example, feels that her adviser has played an integral role in her academic life.

“My GS advisor has been more than a guide who helped me determine which courses to take,” Baker says. “After more than twenty years away from a college campus, it has been comforting to have someone to rely on not only for guidance on my long-term academic goals, but also someone who lends a supportive ear. My advisor is my Columbia partner and has kept me from feeling alone on this thrilling, but potentially intimidating, journey.”

Because GS students pay the same tuition fees as all Columbia undergraduates, the school believes that it is important to assist them with financial planning. GS therefore has its own dedicated director of educational financing. Together with the University Office of Student Financial Services, the GS director helps individual students determine how to combine scholarship monies such as the Charlotte W. Newcombe Foundation award with institutional scholarships, government grants, and student loans.

Since many Mature Students have had a long break in their educational paths, they often take advantage of the peer-mentoring program and free academic tutoring services provided by the GS Academic Resource Center. The ARC offers one-on-one tutoring, along with customized consultations to identify which University workshops and support services might improve students’ learning strategies. (Workshops cover everything from “Survival Tips for Using the Library” to “Juggling Work, School, and Family Life.”) But the ARC is only the tip of the iceberg: Columbia’s resource-rich campus offers further support through centers such as the Office of Disability Services, Columbia Interactive Services, and the Center for Career Education.

The academic experience and support services that GS provides on campus, combined with the post-graduation opportunities made possible by Columbia’s global alumni network, empower students to pursue careers ranging from fine artist to investment banker. “I chose GS because I sought the traditional education and support network it offers,” explains Denise Costello, a Newcombe Scholar who spent more than ten years working for start-ups and Fortune 500 companies in the technology and financial sectors before enrolling at GS.

That network is extensive. The Office of Alumni Relations and the Columbia Alumni Association frequently host events that bring alumni and current students together. Panel discussions featuring alumni in business, law, and the arts create opportunities to network and seek career advice. And events such as “Perspective on the President” and “Columbia Community Outreach Day” allow students to meet other people with similar interests.

With its rich history of educating adult women, its inclusive approach to adult undergraduate education, its abundant campus resources and its worldwide alumni network, the Columbia School of General Studies offers mature women with exceptional academic potential remarkable opportunities for growth. We are proud to partner with the Charlotte W. Newcombe Foundation in order to continue making a difference in the lives of so many extraordinary women.

For more information about the Columbia University School of General Studies, please visit