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Brenda Huang / Staff Illustrator

Updated Thursday, Dec. 6 at 4:36 p.m.

In the spring of 1965, James P. Shenton, a history professor, presented his students with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The United States Office of Economic Opportunity (part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty) was looking for colleges across the nation to create and house experimental programs to help at-risk high schoolers get to college. Shenton told his students if they could create a proposal for such a program before the summer, he would make sure Columbia would approve it.

Roger Lehecka and his classmate Steve Weinberg, both students in the College, jumped at the opportunity. The pair were in their sophomore and junior years respectively, and Lehecka had already decided to abandon his “self-indulgent” math major in pursuit of creating real social change. Over the course of that spring semester, the two students managed to put together a summer program that would support 160 rising tenth graders from all five boroughs of New York.

Just one month before the summer session, their proposal was approved and the Double Discovery Center came to be. Not only was it created by students, but the initiative was almost entirely student-run. It would stay that way for five years until Larry Dais was appointed to run it in 1970.

Lehecka credits Dais, who was Executive Director, for bringing the program to maturity. Dais gave a solid foundation to the student creation by ensuring that Columbia would provide support no matter how undergraduate interests might change. Dais established a non-student administration that would be in charge of the center and voiced that the center should be a place to begin selecting “qualified minority students” for admission to Columbia(though this is not the stated function). The DDC is now structurally categorized as a department in Columbia College.

Deep in the DDC Archives at Columbia, I find folders of letters from this foundational decade written by Dais on behalf of the center. He signs off most of these correspondences (as well as an email to me, over 40 years later) with “knowledge is power.” That sign-off may be the perfect encapsulation of the DDC’s reason to be.

Formally, the DDC’s mission is to “address the glaring disparities between the local Ivy League institution … and the underserved and underperforming schools in the community” around it. Hence the phrase “Double Discovery”: the center sought to both “improve local schools by exposing students to the rigor of Columbia, and engage Columbia students with the neighborhood.” Over the past five decades, the DDC has come up against and struggled to overcome administrative and financial barriers, but this mission—as well as a unique sense of community fostered among its students—have prevailed since day one.

The Double Discovery Archives
The DDC's first Upward Bound class, 1965

The politics of its founding era were in tune with its mission. President Johnson’s War on Poverty earned the DDC a $1 million grant the year it was founded (around $8 million today) to establish its Upward Bound and Talent Search Programs, which continue to be pillars of its operation. The grandeur of the DDC’s start continues into its legacy: in 1998, the center received White House recognition as part of President Bill Clinton’s Promising Practices program, which highlights community efforts to reduce racial disparities across the United States.

I found it surprising that none of my friends at Columbia had heard of the DDC until I brought it up to them; I only know about it because I worked there as a college counselor in the fall of 2017. But the center’s presence on our campus is vital to its mission: To make Columbia and other four-year colleges seem reachable to its students, regardless of their socioeconomic background.

Hector Vazquez and Ingrid Gomez started dating during their freshman year at the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, a public high school in Harlem. That same year, 1989, they also applied to and enrolled in the DDC. For Vazquez and Gomez, the center became a refuge from troubling aspects of home. Vazquez grew up in the Carver Houses in East Harlem in the 1980s, “the middle of the crack epidemic,” he tells me. The DDC gave him the chance to get out of the neighborhood and instead spend time on Columbia’s campus. Gomez, who is from the Bronx, had a similar experience at home. Columbia’s campus was a safe space for her to pursue her intellectual ambitions, and a place where people believed in her potential when few others did. Gomez went on to attend Wellesley; Vazquez chose Amherst. Both tell me that the DDC made it possible for them to attend these institutions, and helped them succeed.

Vazquez’ roommate sophomore year of college was James Benjamin Guest VII. While Vasquez was a first-generation student, Guests I through VI had all attended Amherst. But regardless of the differences between his upbringing and his peers’, Vazquez had made it. “We were both in bunk beds,” he recalls, “We were both here, you know?” This feeling of accomplishment, shared by all of the former DDC students I interview, superseded institutional and familial barriers.

After college, Vazquez and Gomez came back to live in New York City, and today they remain close friends. Gomez is a social worker and community organizer, and Vazquez is a pediatrician and the manager of Pediatric Emergency Medicine fellowship at Columbia. The part of the DDC experience that continues to encourage Vazquez and Gomez to this day are the people they met while students at the center. When I ask Gomez what the most useful resource the DDC provided her was, she begins to choke up. The counselors, she says, her voice straining through the phone, were invaluable. “They believed in our ability to really overcome the obstacles that present [themselves] when you are a first-generation kid.”

In fact, every student I interview speaks of their counselors with candid gratitude. Sean Hembrick, a DDC Student from 2002 to 2005, and currently the cultural director at Lafayette College, misremembers his tutor’s name as “Tony Stark.” He laughs over the phone, joking that it might as well be his name. Either way, counselors were superheroes.

This impact wasn’t one-sided.

Elza Bouhassira

Amber Moorer, who graduated from Columbia in 2008, found the DDC out of necessity. She needed a job that would give her summer housing, and the DDC’s summer programs provided a solution. Though Moorer started out volunteering one day a week, by the end of her senior year, she tutored four days a week and was President of the Double Discovery Student Organization; she was hooked.

After Moorer completed grad school, she returned to the DDC for a year as a college counselor. The center, she tells me, was “a really special place to work.” The chance to get to know students and their families intimately, and even spend the summer with the students living on campus, allows counselors at the DDC to “have an impact in a way that is basically impossible in other settings.” Moorer is now a researcher with a nonprofit in Washington D.C. that specializes in teacher policy.

Rebecca Castillo volunteered with the center after she graduated from the Journalism School in 1994. Castillo was told to get involved by friends already working with the DDC, and by 1997, she had established a youth newsroom within the center that published its own magazine, Harlem Youth Network. Under her guidance, the students handled everything from writing content to garnering advertising. After that program ended, Castillo kept coming back to the center to do “grunt work,” and now takes every year’s graduation pictures. In her office, surrounded by newspapers piling on her desk and stapled to her walls, I ask Castillo why her love for the center is so enduring. “Everybody helped each other out,” she replies, smiling.

Sometimes the cycles of mentor and mentee at the DDC come full circle. Shaun Abreu was a DDC student in the mid 2000s who worked closely with Moorer. After he graduated high school and was accepted into the Columbia College class of 2014, Abreu followed Moorer’s footsteps at Columbia and helped out at the DDC. The two kept in touch. Moorer recalls receiving email from him while he was an undergrad, expecting the attachment to be an essay he had written for class. But when she opened it she realized that she had been wrong. Abreu had sent Moorer another DDC student’s essay: a college essay, one he had edited himself, in the same style she had edited his essays for Columbia. Abreu graduated from Tulane Law School last spring, and now works as a labor and employment associate at Genova Burns.

The Double Discovery Archives
DDC Class of 2014

While this high level of both student and tutor engagement has been constant over the years, so have concerns over funding from both Columbia and the federal government. In 1989, during the South African apartheid divestment movement on campus, the Black Students of Columbia University presented a list of demands to then-President Michael Sovern: “Full divestment of all equity funds held by the University in companies that do business in South Africa,” sharp increases in Black faculty member hiring, and “full financial support for the Double Discovery Center.”

At the time, Columbia provided the DDC around $30,000 per year, which made up less than 5% of the center’s annual budget (it now provides $58,000 annually, according to a Columbia spokesperson). The majority of what remained was funded by the federal government. As debates about Columbia’s place in the diversification of college campuses and global civil rights movements raged, the DDC emerged as a pressing source for debate: Was Columbia doing enough?

Olger Twyner, who led the center from 1998 to 2008, believes the University’s contributions to the DDC extend beyond the purely financial. The fact that Columbia lent its space, the time of its faculty, and its facilities to serve DDC students made the student experience at center unique compared to other nonprofits aimed at getting high school students to college. For example, the DDC (in conjunction with the Center for American Studies) puts on a summer course called Freedom and Citizenship, which is modelled after Columbia’s Core Curriculum.

In 2005, the Double Discovery center faced a financial crisis. There were drastic cuts to the federal funding that made up the majority of its budget, as federal funds previously given to the DDC were originally proposed to be reallocated to President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative. In 2005, when asked about the cuts, Twyner told Spectator that the DDC would "either offer drastically reduced programming, or perhaps we close." Luckily, neither occurred.

Twyner, who received an MBA in public and nonprofit management from the Business School, decided to take fundraising into his own hands. He hired a development-focused staff member and helped manage the creation of a highly sophisticated funding database that included former and potential donors. Twyner began maintaining and expanding the DDC’s set of funding relationships, allowing it to rely less heavily on both Columbia’s money and federal funding.

During Twyner’s tenure, DDC students went on college trips across the country and even traveled internationally. As a Goldman Sachs scholar, for example, Abreu spent a week over the summer studying in Berlin, experiencing an entirely new culture with his peers—and practicing the German he had learned at the DDC. For Twyner, bolstering the center’s finances provided a concrete way to bridge the divide his students felt when they compared themselves to their more well-off peers.

When I ask about anything that could have been improved during his own time at the DDC, Abreu says: “Honestly, I can't think about much that could not have gone perfectly.” He credits this in large part to Twyner.

Twyner served the center for a decade, a standard that previous directors had also lived up to. After his departure, the center had three directors in nine years.

Elza Bouhassira

For two years after Twyner left in 2008, the DDC didn’t see stable leadership. After Twyner resigned, many of the professional counselors went with him. In 2010, Abreu wrote an op-ed for Spectator detailing how he felt the center had changed. He argued that the DDC is obligated to provide the best possible experience to its students, and “when I was a DDC student, the center certainly met that responsibility.” He alleged that when counseling staff resigned, they had taken their experience and expertise with them, and that the current staff available simply weren’t of the same caliber. And “as for traveling abroad? This year’s senior class hasn’t seen so much as a college trip.” Abreu attributes this decline in funding and program quality to former Executive Director Kevin Matthews. (Matthews did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Over 10 years later, Abreu still stands by everything he wrote in his op-ed, though he emphasizes that it was not meant to create animosity. Abreu says he was defending the DDC because it was and is something he loves.

In January 2018, the DDC appointed Kecia Hayes as its new executive director. She is a graduate of Teacher’s College, the former director of the Raising Educational Achievement Coalition of Harlem Initiative, and a former project coordinator at the New York State Department of Education. Abreu tells me that he thinks the center is “heading in the right direction” under new leadership. Lehecka, who is now a professor of American Studies at Columbia, confirmed that the current executive director understands that creating financial autonomy for the center is “a priority.” (A Columbia spokesperson said that current DDC leadership were not available to be interviewed for this story).

Looking back at the center’s founding, Lehecka tells me that “in retrospect, we were incredibly stupid.” He and his peers never thought the DDC would last fifty years. They thought it wouldn’t need to. Once the center showed schools that they were “failing by not succeeding with these students who were perfectly capable of succeeding when given the right opportunities,” Lehecka thought, “the schools would fix themselves because they’d be so embarrassed. Then the program would fade away.”

But as the inequalities skewed against low-income students in New York have endured, so has the DDC. And regardless of who is heading the center, the people it touches always seem to return. Moorer came back to work for the DDC after grad school, Gomez did the same after she graduated from Wellesley, Castillo still takes graduation photos, and Abreu is still in touch with Lehecka about the center’s future.

“I remember we used to get pizza—” Vazquez squints past me and points to Koronet’s through the glass of the Starbucks storefront. “It was like a huge pizza for cheap. It was huge. It was a dollar back in 1990!” (Koronet’s slices are now $3.75.) Columbia students’ favorite restaurants, parks, and bookstores became Vazquez’s favorites. Likewise, Abreu’s experience at the center make him feel comfortable on campus even before he was an undergrad.

Near the end of my interview with Gomez, she stopped mid-sentence. “Give me a second, I'm getting choked up for some reason, I don't know why. I think it comes from a place of gratitude.” She says she feels emotional out of nowhere. “It really is the fact that they believed in us, you know?”

Correction November 26, 2018: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Olger Twyner led the Double Discovery Center from 1998 to 2007. Twyner served as Executive Director until 2008. The Eye regrets the error.

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Double Discovery Center DDC education community Roger Lehecka Kecia Hayes Larry Dais community service first-generation college access tutoring