"Forever Strong": The School of General Studies remembers Dean Awn

(Sookeun Jung)

(Sookeun Jung)

A candle and a pair of pink and purple spotted socks sat outside the door to Lewisohn Hall through rain, sleet, and shine following the passing of former General Studies Dean Peter Awn. I didn’t notice the small memorial the first time I walked into the building, but when the flickering candle caught my eye one night, I was reminded of Awn’s omnipresence. He is everywhere in Lewisohn Hall, and even now I find myself waiting for him to bound down the stairs or waltz through the glass door of the GS lounge.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, at General Studies credits Awn with with their being at Columbia. This University is not a home for veterans, for parents, for full-time employees, for the formerly incarcerated, for the non-traditional, without Awn’s work. But the reason Dean Awn is the heart and soul of our school is because of the impact he had on each individual student. There is no professor, administrator, or academic, who matches his ability to make students feel valuable through the smallest interactions.

I spoke with students and administrators about their memories of Awn and transcribed a selection of them below. The memories convey both joy and sorrow, but overwhelmingly, there is simply a feeling of immense gratitude.

Maddie Covino, GS Student

The first time I met Dean Awn I was a senior in high school and I was in Italian House for the Dual BA accepted students day. I was 18 years old and I had just gotten off a plane and was incredibly disheveled. I remember being surrounded by students my age and everyone was afraid and skeptical and was trying to decide whether or not this program was the right choice for them.

I think unlike Columbia College or SEAS, this program and General Studies in general is something that people don’t know a lot about, so Dean Awn has a big job in trying to convince students to come here and in trying to convince students that they have a place here. His task was especially difficult that day because he was talking to 18 year olds who looked at General Studies and said those people don’t look like me; they aren’t my age, they don’t come from my background and he had to try to convince us that we could find a home here. And not only that, but that we could go to France and succeed and then come to Columbia and still be okay. And he did it.

He was just an utter and complete success as he stood up there that day and his enthusiasm was palpable and his presence at the podium was electrifying and he convinced an entire room of students that we could find a place within General Studies and that he would be there to support us. No matter what. He delivered on that. I am so grateful every single day that he created this program for people like me and for the people that I’ve become friends with and that I was there that day because I think without his words, I wouldn’t have chosen to do this and I wouldn’t be here.

Lisa Rosen-Metsch, Dean of General Studies

I had the privilege and honor of being with Dean Awn right before he was struck by the car. I met with him with myself and Vice Dean Rogers at 5 p.m. on Friday, January 25th. We met from 5 to 6, he left here after that meeting, I believe he went across the street to get some paper towels and then he was walking home and he, as we know, was struck by a car on 116th crossing Claremont.

So I want to share that memory with you of that last meeting.

We were having this meeting, I had asked Dean Awn to come see me because I was leaving that Sunday to go to Geneva to meet with a family, one of our really distinguished alumna, to visit with her and to talk with her about her experience at GS. I had a present for the family, a beautiful box, a Tiffany box, we were giving a picture frame. Dean Awn came in to see me and I was trying to tie the bow. I am pretty klutzy myself and if you know Dean Awn, you know that he is exquisite and elegant and just does everything perfectly. He came, I’m going to show you the picture which I can send to you, to tie this bow and as we were getting ready, and Vice Dean Rodgers took the picture.

You can see the time, January 25th at 5:02 and there are some goofy pictures here. And I have to say, it has been over a year since he had stepped down as Dean. He was dapper and brilliant and wonderful and if you can see in this picture, he had jeans on but they had really cool cuffs and he had suspenders and we sat together, in this meeting, and I was telling him about the upcoming trip. I was also on this same trip going to visit the Trinity new dual degree program and he was so happy to hear about that program and so proud of that program. I was also going to visit my daughter who was studying in London and I was going to see some of our other alums there.

He just was so happy, then our meeting was stopped because all of the sudden a student came in, an alum who heard he was in the building, because as we know he is like a rockstar. And I didn’t even know this alum, I don’t know how this alum knew he was here but he came in, he was somebody who is at law school and he was also an alum of the JTS GS joint program which I graduated from. And he just came and said "Dean Awn, I heard you were in the building," and he came in and I was struck by how well they knew each other. He was telling Dean Awn how he was doing and said “are you going to be teaching?” and this part is sad, and Dean Awn said he absolutely was going to be teaching in the fall, he is going to teach LitHum.

I just said to him "you know Peter," I said, “I’m so excited about this upcoming trip and it’s all cause of you. All of this is cause of you!"

And he was talking about his excitement for teaching and then we came back in to the office and I just said to him "you know Peter," I said, “I’m so excited about this upcoming trip and it’s all cause of you. All of this is cause of you!" And I have to say that I’m so glad I said that to him and then he said to me in his typical way, he kind of took his arm and threw it and said “No, no, don’t be silly that’s not true.” And the he goes “I want to tell you Lisa,” he says “I hear good things!”

I have to tell you, he is the type of person, he doesn’t just say that. And it was this meeting we had and we were laughing and talking, just about how things are going and different stresses and he always had so much advice for me and being the GS Dean is such an amazing honor at such a special school but it’s a dance. He really in many ways taught me that dance in the first year.

Curtis Rogers who has worked with him for 20 years was in that meeting and Curtis had just been out that past week for a day, he had been sick, and he is usually never sick. And Peter was so concerned about him and asking him about how he’s feeling and how he’s doing. And this last hour, and to the best of my knowledge again I think we were the last ones who were with him, what strikes me is just, what came out of that meeting is his love for our students, which showed with this alum that just appeared out of nowhere, his advice.

I know that this school will be forever strong because of all that he did.

And as tragic as it is, I do know in my heart that he left that day just feeling really good. I, like the rest of our community, am heartbroken and sad and angry that Dean Awn was taken from us, but I will be forever grateful and I know for myself as a Dean that I will work everyday my hardest to follow him example and I know that this school will be forever strong because of all that he did.

(Courtesy of Dean Rosen-Metsch)

(Courtesy of Dean Rosen-Metsch)

Cole Wagner, GS Student

He was the first person I ever interacted with at Columbia. I had received my acceptance letter and I had received an invitation to attend a welcome lunch or brunch to meet your fellow students and meet some alumni. And I showed up and he was standing at the door and he shook my hand and he was like ‘Welcome to GS,” and...that got me started here. That is the first thing I did on this campus.

And going forward I interacted with him fairly regularly. We would always have really great, really positive conversations. He always took time to see and have a ten-minute talk every time we met, once a week or so. He was very interested in what I was doing, how I was settling in, and it wasn’t in anyway like “Oh just speaking to a student,” he genuinely cared about who I was as a person. He said to me after every meeting, “I’m so glad you’re here, GS was meant for people like you.” He of course never said it, but he built this place for people like me, with unconventional backgrounds, who had maybe never done any schooling or anything like that.

I was homeschooled my entire life. I had never had any academic experience whatsoever. What he did here, both institutionally and as a person, made it possible for someone like that to succeed at a place like Columbia. And for that, and so many other reasons of which I’m sure other people can articulate better than I can, I owe him everything. I owe him what my life is today and what my life will be going forward.

I think the first thing everybody noticed about him was, he had style.

Michael Grant, GS Student

Dean Awn. I think the first thing everybody noticed about him was, he had style. And not only did he have style but he had some very unique socks that he always used to wear with his outfits. Having said that, Dean Awn was himself a very unique person. Very warm, very sincere, ver scholarly. He was the person you could approach and talk to about anything. For many of the older students, he was an encouragement.

He was a presence. My interaction wasn’t as great as I wished it could have been, but he and I always took time out to at least speak to each other.

Clayton Becker, GS Student

My favorite Dean Awn memory is from first year of Sciences Po. He came to visit us in Menton and he had this general session for everyone that most people came to, but then he had an office hours style session that the school scheduled kind of poorly so only me and Edanur showed up. And we just got to talk to him for two hours about whatever we wanted to talk to him about and he was just so curious about how we were doing, the things we were learning, the various opportunities that existed for us in France. No other person that I have spoken to at Columbia, Sciences Po, at any point in my academic career, has cared so much about what we were doing and taken so much time to get to know us as people that were important to him and his mission for the school. No one I’ve ever spoken to has had that kind of curiosity for his students’ lives.

The author is a junior at the School of General Studies and is incredibly grateful to have known Dean Awn, even if it was only for a moment.

CultureMaddie Covino