Article Image

Awn instituted sweeping changes across General Studies, where he served as dean between 1997 and 2017, capping off a career of more than four decades in higher education.

A leader, mentor, professor, and friend to countless people in the Columbia community, Dean Awn will be remembered for his tireless dedication to helping others. To help tell the story of Awn’s impact on Columbia, we invited you to share with us your favorite memory of him. This edition is part one of your submissions, focusing primarily on the experiences of Dean Awn’s students. More submissions will be published later in the week.

I took Peter Awn’s undergraduate lecture on Islam in the early 1990s. He was an eloquent and inspiring lecturer and teacher. I knew little about the subject before and have since then spent many years thinking and learning about the Islamic tradition (I’m a professor of “Religious Studies” now). I owe Professor Awn so much gratitude for giving me such a great start on this trajectory. I’m jaded about teaching sometimes, but when I think about teachers like Peter Awn, I am reminded that one teacher in one course can truly change a student’s perspective on the world and thus, transform his or her life. — Adam Becker


Dean Awn was my professor of Islam during my sophomore year. During the semester, I only met with him once to review a paper. Though I thoroughly enjoyed the class, I didn’t give the man himself too much thought. That is, until two years later, when I was moving out of Columbia Housing into my first apartment. I ran into Dean Awn on the street. He not only remembered me by name, but he remembered specific things we had discussed, as well as interests I had discussed with my TA. He asked about my post-college career while walking with me to my new apartment. Since then, he had checked in on me every couple months, always brimming with a sense of pride as I figured out my world. His enthusiasm for my life never wavered. In class, I came to know him as a captivating speaker. But it was afterward that I would come to understand him as an equally captivating listener. — Robert Matthew Powell,


When I first came to Columbia after serving a Mormon mission and leaving Brigham Young University , I was scared and nervous. For the first time in my life, I took an incredible gamble on myself, for myself, and, most importantly, against my family's wishes and without their support. I was very alone.

On my first day at Columbia, I met Dean Awn. He approached me and asked me about my story—why I came to GS, who I was, where I was going, etc. When I told him that I was here to escape Mormonism and find myself, he chuckled, and, with that Awn-ish zeal, exclaimed, "Why, I'm a gay ex-priest and my last boyfriend was ex-Mormon! You are welcome here and you belong here."

I wish I could properly express all the love and security he gave me in the following walk that we shared, but I can't.

Thank you for being a part of my story, Dean Awn, and thank you for being the champion us “wayward souls” needed. You will be missed. — Kelley Valentine


As a GS student, I had many interactions with Dean Awn in Lewisohn Hall, but what impacted me most was my experience in his course on Islam. The reading load bordered on sadistic. Awn, gleefully impervious to grade inflation trends, held us to the highest standards. He had faith in our ability to rise to the occasion, and because of that, I worked harder in his class than in any other I had taken before or since. He made a B+ feel like an A+. Through this baptism by fire, I became a “real” Columbia student—insecurities about my nontraditional path burned away. Awn read every single student’s paper, gave extensive feedback, and remembered what you wrote about, even weeks after it had been submitted. He embodied what it means to be “not a teacher, but an awakener.” — Neal Curtis

Courtesy of Neal Curtis
Curtis poses with Dean Awn at the Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony in 2014.


Professor Peter Awn succeeded Dean Gillian Lindt as dean of the School of General Studies after I had graduated and begun advising undergraduates in the Dean of Students Office. We were a small team. For a decade, I knew him as my boss's boss, a man with a refreshingly wicked sense of humor, high standards, and a keen ear for well-crafted phrases—a dean whose commitment to the GS mission and our students I respected, shared, and appreciated deeply.

Despite years of work-related memories, since learning that he was in critical care after being struck by a car, my fear that we might not chat again triggered a loop of far more recent impressions. I mourn the Peter who enthusiastically agreed to write me a letter of recommendation for graduate school, the man who attended the memorial for my husband, the one who showed delight and let me make him laugh when we met unexpectedly on campus and I caught him up on recent events.

Thank you, Peter, for making so many of us feel valued. — Paola Scarpellini Crotts


I’ve had the experience of working with college administrations, from student councils to being an administrator myself, and of course as a GS Student. Dean Peter Awn was the very definition of the highest ideal of an administrator. On my first day of orientation, I already regretted my decision to leave my family in Chicago. I didn’t feel the same excitement that I saw around me. While I was in line to get my ID, Dean Awn was going down the line of students, shaking everyone’s hands. When I went to introduce myself, he finished it before I could and said, “Athena! Ah yes, from Chicago! I read your application. I can’t wait to see what you do here. You’re going to do great things here. You belong here, you know?” But I didn’t know. As a first-generation student from a community college, I didn’t know if I could do it or if I truly belonged. I thanked him often for turning my first semester, my semester of self-doubt, into one of courage instead. I like to say that before anyone knew my name, he did. And before I found my footing, he believed I would thrive. I always knew Dean Awn’s name, since his name was on the acceptance letter, but I didn’t know that Dean Awn knew anything about me personally. Although I got to see and work with Dean Awn beyond that day, including seeing him be honored by Community Impact, where I worked at the time, I will never forget how he made me feel right at home and it’s because of him that I’ll forever consider Columbia a home. — Athena Ablang


I stumbled upon Dean Awn’s class on Islam during my first year at Columbia and was drawn to his energy, his smile, and the enthusiasm with which he taught the class. He made me fall in love with learning all over again. Soon, he became my friend, advocate, and mentor—sharing stories about his own journey over lunch, supporting my semester-long leave from campus to work for the Department of State, and always taking out more time from his day to support my progress, not only during college, but after as well. You will be very missed, Dean Awn. — Ayushi Roy

To respond to this piece, or to submit to an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

inspiration Awn professor legacy GS Dean
ADVERTISEMENT
Newsletter
Related Stories