In late February, the History department brought together students, alumni, and faculty for a robust discussion in honor of major declaration.

The department’s Director of Undergraduate Studies, professor Neslihan Şenocak, welcomed attendees to the event and facilitated two panels: one featuring four department alumni, and another featuring faculty and members of the Undergraduate History Council.

We joined the event to learn about the undergraduate curriculum and the paths forged by department alumni during and beyond their time at Columbia.

Student and Alumni Stories

The student and alumni panelists who shared their stories all had two things in common: first, that they loved studying History at Columbia; and two, that not a single one of them entered Columbia intending to do so. Here’s a selection of their stories:

Stumbling into History

Michelle Yan (CC ‘20) entered Columbia certain she’d become a Financial Economics major, and her first history class was, literally, a mistake. During her first week of classes, she got lost, and ended up in the front row of the wrong class—as it turned out, professor Caterina Pizzigoni’s introductory Latin American history course.

Michelle was hooked. Now a History and Hispanic Studies double major, Michelle is writing a senior thesis that bridges both areas of study.

Outside the classroom, she explored opportunities at the intersections of art business and finance, before securing an internship at consulting firm McKinsey & Co, where she will be returning after graduation.

Studying history, Michelle reflected, has not only strengthened her ability to think critically, analytically, and empathically, but also, in her words, made her a more interesting person.

Finding History Through Trial and Error

Chris Allison (CC ‘09), now the Director of Programmatic Partnerships at Vistar Media, entered Columbia unsure what he’d study. He’d always been interested in politics, so he tried out courses in political science and history. Ultimately, it was advice to do what he loved that helped him pick History when he was struggling to pick a major.

Over the course of his time at Columbia, Chris’s career journey was a practice of trial and error. He did an internship with his local councilman, then tried out two internships in finance before deciding that it wasn’t a fit for him. Throughout the process, he attended CCE events and met with career counselors to prepare.

Despite graduating during the financial crisis, Chris did eventually find his footing—through a Columbia connection, a classmate who helped him land his first full-time job at American Express. “Getting that first job,” Chris reminded the audience, “just requires one person giving you a chance.”

From International Relations to History PhD

For Yasemin Akcaguner (BC ‘17), this shift happened later. Yasemin entered college intending to pursue a career in international relations, a goal that led her to major in Political Science and MESAAS.

But an Ottoman history class her junior year, which sparked a fascination with the field, changed her path. Now she’s a second-year PhD student in the History department, with a specialization in that field. 

“Take the kinds of classes you are genuinely interested in, not what you think will look good on your CV.”

Reflecting on her experience, Yasemin wishes that she’d paid more attention to the big questions that interested her rather than pursuing a track that felt more pre-professional in nature. “Take the kinds of classes you are genuinely interested in, not what you think will look good on your CV,” she said. ”Taking these classes can help you figure out what issues you care about.”

Using History Skills to Get the Job

Karen Rios (GS’ 12) has worked in educational technology, on a political campaign, in financial compliance, and now as the co-founder and CEO of Lifesaver, a financial literacy app—but coming into college as a first-generation college student and the child of immigrants, she had only a few careers on her radar: doctor, lawyer, engineer.

After high school, Karen enrolled in engineering school. Soon, though, she realized that it wasn’t for her, and eventually transferred to Columbia. Here, a transformative course on immigration allowed her to “for the first time see herself in a class” and, ultimately, find her path toward the History major.

With graduation nearing, the pressure to repay student loans was foremost on Karen’s mind. Though history was not at the center of her first post-grad job, at a hedge fund, it was crucial in helping her secure it: not only did Karen leverage the persuasion skills she built through her history coursework to make her case, but, she later found out, her senior thesis had served as compelling evidence that she could tackle any project or problem for her future employer.

“Don’t focus on the employment,” Karen said, looking back. “Focus on what you learn.”

History for Social Impact

Ever since Tommy Song (CC ‘20) was a kid and learned about the civil rights movement in school, he wanted to become a civil rights lawyer.

This brought him to Columbia and, at first, to Political Science, which Tommy had believed would provide the best preparation for this career. Yet it was in the History department that Tommy would find an intellectual home to further his goals. 

Since taking the Columbia University and Slavery seminar with Karl Jacoby his first year, Tommy has remained involved in this project. In 2018, with the support of Dr. Jacoby, Tommy founded the Columbia University Historical Justice Initiative, a research project and walking tour focused on marginalized narratives of the university.

For students considering the major, Tommy recommended taking the initiative to speak to professors after class and during office hours. Seeing where it took him, we couldn’t agree more!

To Thy Own Self Be True

When Spencer Gyory arrived at Columbia, he already considered himself a history nerd. His goal in college was “learning to learn,” including core competencies like reading, writing, and critical thinking, knowing that he could learn industry-specific skills on the job.

In college, Spencer wrote for the sports section of Spectator and spent a lot of time exploring career options, by networking, attending information sessions, and speaking to professors and TAs. He ended up majoring in History and Economics, and is now a Vice President in the Private Capital Advisory division at Lazard.

“Put a lot of time and energy into reflecting on yourself. It’s actually pretty challenging to answer questions like, ‘What do I like? What am I good at?’ … You need to know yourself to make the right decision.”

For Spencer, building self-knowledge was essential on his journey, and the main piece of advice he offered to current Columbians. “Put a lot of time and energy into reflecting on yourself. It’s actually pretty challenging to answer questions like, ‘What do I like? What am I good at?’ ” This will, he said, not only “help you narrow down the options at your fingertips,” but also “explain your story in a concise and clear way.”

“Don’t just follow the herd,” he advised, “You need to know yourself to make the right decision.”