“I’m a visual arts major, and I never did arts before I came here three years ago.”
This is the first thing that Elizabeth Ulanova, GS ’19, tells me as we sit down to talk at a small table on the first floor of Dodge Hall (the arts building, not the gym, as Ulanova is quick to clarify over email).
“And I’m going to go to grad school for a masters in sociology,” she continues. “But I never took a sociology class in my life, ever.” In just a few short months, she plans to move to London to study at Cambridge University.
But listening to Ulanova speak now, it’s hard to imagine anything she hasn’t done. A high school graduate by the age of 16, she became an international business liaison in China by 17. By 20, she had founded her own tech startup. She has studied overseas, worked at newspapers and in corporate education, served as a company’s first entrepreneur in residence, and all this she did before setting foot on Columbia’s campus.
At the start of her junior year of high school, Ulanova, who was born and raised in Southern California, struggled deeply with her mental health. “I was so depressed and really not seeing a proper future for myself,” she tells me. “I felt like my entire life—I already knew what was going to happen before it even started.”
She outlines the road she saw ahead of herself—graduating high school, enrolling in a college in California, climbing up the corporate ladder. By the end of her winter break, she decided she wanted to look out of the state, out of the country, out into the world for something to do.
So at 16, armed with a high school diploma and roughly seven years of experience working with her dad, she moved to central China to work as an international business liaison for a company making organic beverages. From there, Ulanova found herself moving wherever opportunities took her: jumping from company to company, from job to job, often embarking into entirely new fields.
“I just fell in love—it was almost like America in the 1920s,” she says of China at the time. “Everybody was starting something.”
And, eventually, this is what brought her back to the U.S., the idea of starting something—a startup of her own. It was in Boston, while working on her tech startup called PenPairs, a service which matched medical patients with virtual penpals, that Ulanova realized there was more to tech projects than just the tech. Around the same time, she was told, again and again, she should move to New York, and so she came to Columbia and the School of General Studies.
But for Ulanova, who sought to study the intersection of art, culture, and technology, no department quite seemed to fit.
“Everything I’ve done or wanted to do was always very interdisciplinary,” she says. “And I got rejected by department after department after department.”
While Ulanova has since found her home in the visual arts department, the journey wasn’t easy. She remembers, after a particularly difficult critique, going to a bathroom stall to cry, feeling like she had no idea what she was doing. She faced rejection, even from the beginning.
“My first class ever—it was fiction filmmaking, a laboratory—I was told never to do film again,” she says, laughing. “And I didn’t touch a camera for another six months after that, just trying to figure out how to combine these interests in a medium that tried to make sense.”
As just one example, for her thesis project, Ulanova created a series of short films centered around a fictionalized technology—glasses that record one’s memories, telepathic brain connections, pills which inhibit emotions—with each film portraying and speaking to something real. Each of these films, she tells me, were inspired by her own personal tragedies.
“Personal tragedies happen all the time, and every semester something bad is going to happen, whether that’s medical personal, whatever—and that was definitely the case for me, but as so everyone,” she says later in the interview. “But every single time that did happen, I always asked myself, ‘Is there some way where I could put all of those emotions into a product?’ And the biggest way that I found some comfort and solace was through my department.”
Outside of the classroom, Ulanova embodies the interdisciplinary flare she brings to her studies. In her time at Columbia, she has served on the first generation advisory board, as a New Student Orientation Program leader, as the national president of Ivy Council, and, currently, as co-head of the U.S. expansion of Project Access, a global non-profit.
But for all her accolades, Ulanova, who today is still in the midst of her 20s and who will graduate magna cum laude, leaves Columbia exceedingly humble. As we talk, she qualifies everything that she has accomplished. To hear her tell it, these things happened “randomly,” or because she followed a friend, or because she met the right person at the right time. To even be nominated for a Spectator senior profile, Ulanova tells me over email before we meet, “is quite unexpected.”
As we walk along Broadway after our interview, she tells me about her plans to go axe throwing in Brooklyn later that night. She’s never been before, but she thinks it will be a good way to relieve stress in the aftermath of finals, just before the true craziness of graduation hits. In this brief period between, in the space just before she sets off on yet another foreign adventure, Ulanova still finds the time to try something new and exciting and exceptionally unique.