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“Surround Yourself with People Who Really Push You”

SPS NXT is an opportunity for students to share their experiences, passions, and ideas with a diverse and engaged audience here at Columbia.

The students who participated in the event submitted an application, which was reviewed by a panel of academic advisors Ayiisha Ferrell and Benjamin Shaw as well as Career Design Lab Associate Director Mariela Torres and Michele M. Trizzino, associate director of administration for the M.S. in Construction Management program. The students were mentored under Strategic Communication lecturers Jessica Goldberg and Carolyn Montrose. The topics presented ranged widely, and the experiences shared were often personal. The student speakers featured in SPS NXT have shared stories ranging from a retired Trinidadian professional soccer player’s ambitions to disrupt the sports industry to a mother’s story of escaping Ukraine with her children at the start of the war. The most recent installment of the annual event, hosted by the Office of Student Life, took place at Faculty House on April 5, 2023.

Details from the students’ stories follow.

Yulia Gerbut

Yulia Gerbut | Challenges Make Us Stronger: My Experience in the Ukrainian War

On the morning of February 24, 2022, Yulia Gerbut, mother of three boys and a current master’s student in the M.S. in Nonprofit Management program, woke up to the sound of bombs falling on her suburban neighborhood just outside Kyiv. Only two years earlier, Yulia had lost her youngest son to cancer. She had also transitioned from a career in marketing to successfully launching Ukraine’s first Child Life department. She was determined to protect her surviving children from the Russian invasion. Yulia and her two surviving sons left everything behind to join the millions of other Ukrainian refugees fleeing the escalating war. Yulia reached out to her American host family from years earlier, when she had been an exchange student. They took Yulia and her family into their Florida home, providing support as Yulia adjusted to life after the invasion. Having already completed a master’s degree in economic theory and marketing at Kyiv-Moghyla Academy in 2009, Yulia understood the power of education. She decided that in order to achieve her goal of starting a nonprofit childhood cancer organization in her son’s name, she needed more education in the U.S. Yulia applied to Columbia University, and today she studies full-time at the School of Professional Studies. She now lives in New Hampshire, where her children attend school. Yulia’s story is one of resilience in the face of loss and dedication to family in times of hardship. She hopes her time at Columbia will set her on the path to starting a foundation in memory of her son, which will provide support and assistance to children battling cancer and their families.

Amar Singh

Amarpreet Singh | Trash Talks: Is Waste Really “Waste”? 

Amar Singh is a master’s degree student in the M.S. in Sustainability Management program with more than seven years’ experience in waste-management practices in India and elsewhere. Amar previously served as head of strategy for an India-based social entrepreneurship start-up and waste-management company called Daily Dump. In addition, he holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the Thapar Institute of Engineering and Technology and is an alumnus of the Institut Européen d'Administration des Affaires social entrepreneurship program. Upon arriving in the U.S. to begin his studies at SPS, Amar was shocked at American culture around waste, particularly in New York City. So he signed up for SPS NXT to present a consumption reduction plan and to share his professional journey and future ambitions. In his presentation, he quantified and provided perspective on the scale of our personal waste production.

When asked for advice for students, Amar said: “I feel like one thing that I’ve learned after coming here is that if you have curiosity about anything, do not be afraid to reach out to people. I literally write LinkedIn messages and emails to random people, like a mad person. I think initially when you come, especially for international students, you’re a little scared of a new country. You think, ‘Is it okay if I write to this person?’ Or ‘How do I write to that person?’ … Culturally things are different here—I feel like it’s an atmosphere where you can reach out to anyone. “The seniority doesn’t matter as long as you have the right questions to ask.”

Connie Koh

Connie Koh | Just the Beginning: Finding My True Identity

Connie Koh was born in South Korea. Her mother, a piano teacher, instilled in her a love for music, and she began practicing piano from the age of 3. At a young age, Connie's musical talent impressed her piano teacher enough to convince her parents to send her to a prestigious music school in Korea. Although Connie's teacher believed her to be talented enough for admission to the school, a financial crisis in early 2000 caused her father to lose his job. Not only could Connie’s family no longer afford the expense of the school, but when her father found a new job in America, Connie had to rebuild her life in Colorado. She slowly adjusted and was accepted to the music program in piano performance at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Unfortunately, she was diagnosed with overuse syndrome, a condition associated with the repetitive action of a joint, which ended her piano career just before she’d completed her degree. She had to reimagine a life without the piano. After graduating, Connie began working for a law firm as a paralegal. There she developed an interest in mergers and acquisitions, which inspired her to pursue a career in technology, finance, investment, and data. To further this goal, she is now completing her master’s in Applied Analytics at the School of Professional Studies. Connie shared how she found the strength to overcome life-changing obstacles, start over after failures, and develop new passions. She gave this advice to fellow students: “Don’t limit yourself. Surround yourself with people who really push you and encourage you, and use the resources that the school provides. … Making connections with people is very important.”

Rashad Hyacenth

Rashad Hyacenth | The Power of Search Funds 

Rashad Hyacenth is a native of Trinidad. His background is, to say the least, unusual. After attending Indiana University, where he played D1 soccer, he was a professional soccer player in Trinidad. He also owned a fitness company called Fitness TT and had an internship with the International Olympic Committee in Trinidad and Tobago. Currently, Rashad is earning an M.S. in Sports Management at SPS. His ambitions: to own a sports team and reorganize the business structure of the Caribbean and Latin American sports industry. Rashad has a special interest in “search funds,” which put venture money in the hands of young and diverse business leaders. The bottom line? Search funds give young entrepreneurs the ability to purchase companies and also gain high-level executive leadership experience. His advice for students? Put yourself out there. “Just remember that once you get here, yes, it’s a grind. Everyone is smart. Everyone is trying to do the best that they can do, but spread your wings and try to communicate and integrate yourself with different groups, because you realize that the more different, the more similar we are. And people—everyone I’ve spoken to—I’m amazed by them and their career journeys and how they have progressed. When I tell them what I want to do, they’re equally amazed by me. Try to meet as many people from different programs within SPS as possible.”