Mentorship, Community Building, Karaoke, and Great Young Thinkers
“Take this opportunity. Because you never know… you could be the next one at Columbia,” Abel Al-Iqbal Radian told high school students in the Freedom & Citizenship summer program, where he worked with young scholars as they explored great thinkers, from Plato to Martin Luther King Jr.
“Reading the students’ papers, I’d think, ‘Wow, I never thought about it this way,’ though I’ve read these texts five, six times,” Abel said. “They think outside the box.” The Freedom & Citizenship program gives New York City students exposure to college-level coursework, drawing inspiration from the Columbia College course, Contemporary Civilization.
The vast majority of students in the program are low-income, students of color, English language learners, and/or hoping to be the first in their family to attend college. These are realities that Abel knows well. “From my experience, I can definitely relate,” he said. “I was really inspired to do this job because I didn’t have these resources growing up.”
“Reading the students’ papers, I’d think, ‘Wow, I never thought about it this way,’ though I’ve read these texts five, six times. They think outside the box.”
Abel grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia and relocated to a small town in New Mexico as a teenager. The public school he attended did not have access to college preparatory coursework or application support, which made the process difficult, especially since he was still learning English.
While participating in the Freedom & Citizenship program, high school students gain exposure to college-level coursework and life in the Columbia dorms. This past summer, Abel worked as a Residential Teaching Assistant and provided social support and mentorship to students while they lived on the Morningside campus and attended classes during the day. He also worked with students as they completed their reading and writing assignments in the evenings – usually an additional four hours of work after a full day in the classroom.
“A lot of students were shy when they first came. Very shy,” he said. “One of my students said his goal was to become more open socially…and to make more friends.”
“I wanted to build a tighter knit community,” Abel said. It was a big priority for him, especially since so many students had missed out on in-person learning and socializing opportunities due to the pandemic. Abel worked with the program in 2021, when it operated on a hybrid model and did not offer the opportunity to live in Columbia’s dorms. In 2021, he arranged virtual activities, but it was challenging to create community across the digital divide.
This past summer, with the program back fully in person, Abel worked to create community by bringing the fun. He hosted video game tournaments, basketball games and karaoke, so the high school scholars could both wind down at the end of the day and connect with each other. (Though, the karaoke was admittedly “way, way too loud.”)
The community building worked and Abel realized this when one student overslept and missed breakfast. Three of his fellow students noticed because they usually all walked to breakfast together and brought it to his attention. “I didn’t expect that. I thought they would leave individually to breakfast, but no, they would wait for each other.”
“A lot of students were shy when they first came. Very shy... I wanted to build a tighter knit community."
“At the end of the program, I was getting all these letters from these kids saying… ‘you're like a big brother to us,’” Abel said “They became like my little brothers as well. I miss them already.” The Freedom & Citizenship Program continues through the Fall, providing support for students as they apply for college and work on a social impact project. Though the students in the program will no longer be living in the dorms together, Abel will continue to work as a mentor, supporting students with biweekly meetings about their college applications.
While Abel continues to encourage high school students to reach for their dreams, he’s enjoying following his own dream as a senior at Columbia College. He is co-president of the Columbia Indonesian Society, an active member the CU Society of Hip Hop, and working on an independent research project with Professor Randa Serhan of Barnard College about the varying definitions of what qualifies as ‘Halal’ food.
“My dream was always to go to New York City. My whole family's dream, actually,” Abel said. Moving to New York to attend Columbia was a kind of homecoming. His favorite borough for food is Queens, and he particularly enjoys Elmhurst, which has a large Indonesian community. Being in a big city again and connecting with other Indonesians, he was able to speak his first language with people outside his family for the first time in years. He hopes to remain in New York City, attend law school, and work in the field of environmental law.
“My dream was always to go to New York City. My whole family's dream, actually."
Abel Al-Iqbal Radian is a senior studying sociology with a concentration in environmental science at Columbia College