The Rewards of Elasticity: GS’s International Dual Degree Programs Forge New Paths in Nontraditional Education

More than a decade ago, Columbia University and Sciences Po pioneered the first of many Dual Degree Programs with a uniquely immersive approach to international education. Today, alumni of these programs are leveraging the skills and experiences they acquired to make their way in the world—and change it for the better.

Alexander Gelfand
March 02, 2022

Ask Jessica Sarles-Dinsick, Associate Dean for International Programs, to describe the archetypal student in one of the School’s International Dual Degree Programs, and a profile quickly emerges.

“A student who is adventurous, curious, and independent,” Sarles-Dinsick says. Other common characteristics include a willingness to make unusual choices; a propensity to learn both in and out of the classroom; and a desire to solve pressing issues in the world.

Sarles-Dinsick speaks from long experience. After helping to build the infrastructure for the Sciences Po Dual BA Program more than a decade ago, Sarles-Dinsick took on admissions and recruitment duties as well. As additional programs were added with City University of Hong Kong, Trinity College Dublin, and Tel Aviv University, she became responsible for managing the institutional relationships across all of them.

Students who sign up for this nontraditional approach to international education willingly uproot themselves to acquire something unique.

Thanks to its longstanding Joint Program with List College of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the School of General Studies was ideally positioned to spearhead the international Dual BA initiative with Sciences Po. But it was not a risk-free proposition: Unlike standard study abroad programs, the Dual Degree Programs that GS offers with its partners are fully immersive, requiring all students to spend two years abroad before setting foot on the Upper West Side. A certain amount of culture shock is not unusual—even for the Americans.

But that is the point: Students who sign up for this nontraditional approach to international education willingly uproot themselves to acquire something unique.

“You force yourself to redefine what it means to be successful in a totally different academic context,” Sarles-Dinsick says. And that makes participating students “more fluid and elastic in their thinking as they move out into the world after graduation.”

The Filmmaker

Growing up in Warsaw, documentary filmmaker Weronika Jurkiewicz ’15 listened to American music, watched American films and television, and pretty much felt like she knew the place—until she actually came to New York City.

“I think that was the first time I experienced culture shock,” Jurkiewicz says.

Jurkiewicz was in boarding school in Hong Kong when she found out about the inaugural Dual BA Program between GS and Sciences Po. The fact that it was brand new did not put her off. In fact, it was part of the attraction.

“For me, it was just hyper-exciting,” she says.

Unfortunately, Jurkiewicz had already missed the application deadline. But GS gave her a week’s extension, and she completed her application as she rode a night train through Indonesia while celebrating Chinese New Year.

After two years studying social sciences at Sciences Po’s Le Havre campus in Normandy, Jurkiewicz came to the United States to pursue creative nonfiction writing with an eye towards a career in longform journalism—and discovered that it really was a foreign country after all.

“You think that you know America just because you’ve experienced its culture,” she says. “Then you arrive, and it’s so different.”

GS was a revelation as well. From a geographical perspective, Le Havre was wildly diverse; more than 65 percent of students come from outside of France. But the GS population, with its variety of lived experience, was something new again.

“You have veterans, you have ballerinas, you have people who have had a break from school,” Jurkiewicz says. “You experience different kinds of diversity, and that enriches you a lot.”

After graduation, Jurkiewicz landed a job at Future of Storytelling, an organization that explores storytelling in the digital age. She also picked up a master’s degree in documentary filmmaking through DocNomads, a joint program supported by the European Commission that shuttles students through universities in Portugal, Belgium, and Hungary.

While in Budapest, Jurkiewicz began work on a documentary about a sex toy factory in a small Hungarian village. Released in 2019, The Vibrant Village takes a tongue-in cheek look at traditional gender roles (the women of the village work at the factory while the men drink beer at the local bar) and the taboos surrounding sexuality and female pleasure.

As if to underscore that last point, the film became embroiled in a media firestorm this past March when Poland’s Minister of Culture shut down a documentary filmmaker showcase on a national video-on-demand platform due to scheduled screenings of The Vibrant Village and another film with feminist themes. (The incident became known as “Vibrator-gate.”)

Undeterred, Jurkiewicz is already working on her next film, First Date, which deals with managing one’s romantic life after an act of sexual harassment and assault. (The film has received funding from Rooftop Films, a nonprofit film organization based in Brooklyn that screened The Vibrant Village last year.) And she is finalizing a deal for a documentary television series about Polish startups in the ecosystem innovation space.

“This is where I want to be as an artist,” says Jurkiewicz, who credits Sciences Po and Columbia for providing her with the analytical and storytelling skills she uses to address pressing social themes through her work. “I want to interact with the world outside my window.”

The Witness

Human rights consultant Chanatip Tatiyakaroonwong ’18 was not sure he wanted to go to university abroad. But a coup d’état in his native Thailand made up his mind.

Tatiyakaroonwong attended high school in Bangkok during a period of intense political turmoil. He applied to two universities: Sciences Po and a Thai school where he hoped to study constitutional law. But before he even had the chance to choose, the Thai military seized control of the government and suspended the country’s constitution.

Suddenly, studying constitutional law in Thailand seemed a lot less appealing.

“I was like, ‘There’s nothing for me to study; the law doesn’t mean much here,’” says Tatiyakaroonwong, who opted for Sciences Po in hopes of better understanding the political factors that led to the coup.

After studying comparative politics and law at Le Havre, Tatiyakaroonwong came to GS to explore a broader range of courses, ultimately majoring in sociocultural anthropology. But GS expanded his horizons in more ways than one.

At Sciences Po, Tatiyakaroonwong was surrounded by people his own age. At GS, many of his fellow students were older, having pursued prior careers or followed entirely different paths before attending college.

“It really helped me learn a lot about people who have different backgrounds and perspectives,” Tatiyakaroonwong says.

A senior thesis on nationalism and homophobia in Thailand fueled Tatiyakaroonwong’s growing interest in human rights back home. After graduating, he returned to Bangkok and interned with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, where he put the ethnographic skills he had honed at Columbia to use documenting human rights violations by the Thai state against Malay Muslims, an indigenous ethnic and religious group in the country’s Southern Border Provinces.

Tatiyakaroonwong’s experiences as an Asian studying in Europe and America helped him empathize with the way in which Malay Muslims were treated as racial and ethnic others in his own country. Once his internship ended, he continued researching abuses against Malay Muslims and other indigenous minority groups for a European Union-funded project at the Cross-Cultural Foundation, an NGO that works to protect and promote the rights of marginalized groups throughout Thailand.

Tatiyakaroonwong interviewed victims of abuse across the country, documenting instances of indigenous minorities undergoing everything from forced evictions to forced DNA collection. A member of Columbia Queer & Asian student group while at GS, Tatiyakaroonwong also researched human rights violations among the country’s LGBTQI community.

Tatiyakaroonwong eventually returned to the United Nations as a human rights consultant, managing the same European Union-funded project that he had previously worked on at the Cross-Cultural Foundation. He continues to research human rights abuses, using the evidence he collects to seek action from the United Nations’s human rights mechanisms.

Eventually, Tatiyakaroonwong hopes to establish his own NGO—perhaps one that will focus on the issues faced by indigenous minorities and the LGBTQI community in Thailand.

“I want to run an organization that focuses on strategy-building and ensuring that we make real human rights changes through policy advocacy,” he says.

Towards that end, Tatiyakaroonwong will soon travel to Cambridge University, where he plans to earn a master’s degree in politics and international relations. “I chose the UK because I wanted to try out a different country,” he says with a laugh. “I guess it’s my taste for international exposure.”

Thanks to its longstanding Joint Program with List College of the Jewish Theological Seminary, GS was ideally positioned to spearhead the international Dual BA initiative.

The Exchange Artist

As someone who manages international student programs for a living, Hong Kong native Gigi Yan ’17 has one overarching goal.

“I want other students to have the same experience that I did,” she says.

For Yan, enrolling in the Joint Bachelor’s Degree Program with City University of Hong Kong (CityU) “felt like a dream”— albeit one that almost did not come true.

Yan’s mother, a Tibetan Buddhist, sent her to a boarding school for Tibetan refugees in northern India in hopes that she would one day serve as a translator for the Tibetan community back in Hong Kong. That did not happen; but Yan did develop a taste for adapting to different environments and cultures.

After returning home to study psychology at CityU, Yan leapt at the chance to spend a semester at Purdue University in Indiana. She loved being an international student so much that she lobbied to stay longer but was denied—only to discover that she could spend two years at GS.

“I thought it was destiny,” says Yan, who was entranced by the idea of going somewhere unfamiliar and studying at an institution “that would challenge me academically and give me new experiences.”

Unfortunately, finances were tight. To spare her needless anxiety, Yan did not even tell her mother that she had applied until after she received her acceptance letter.

“I have good news and bad news,” Yan told her mom. “The good news is, I got into Columbia. The bad news is, I don’t have the money to pay for it.”

But thanks to scholarships and a bursary from CityU and GS—along with the money she had saved for graduate school working as a tutor and research assistant—Yan ultimately made it to Morningside Heights.

The first semester was tough. Yan felt like an imposter, the only person struggling to succeed academically. And her natural shyness exacerbated the feeling that she was isolated and alone.

Yet volunteer work as a Chinese interpreter at Sanctuary for Families, a New York City nonprofit that helps survivors of domestic violence and sex trafficking, brought her out of her shell—as did subsequent positions at Columbia as a peer advisor and orientation leader.

Returning to Hong Kong, Yan went to work at the Global Engagement Office at CityU, where she eventually ran the school’s joint undergraduate degree programs. In 2019, she moved to a similar position at the University of Chicago’s Yuen Campus, where she continues to help international students profit from the same opportunities for growth that she herself enjoyed. More than anything, she hopes they will share the experience of connecting with others and encountering different voices and viewpoints.

“The people I met really changed my perspective,” Yan says. “There are so many different views, and I appreciate that I was able to learn that through being at Columbia.”

This article appears in the Fall 2021 print edition of The Owl, the alumni magazine of the Columbia University School of General Studies, with the title "The Rewards of Elasticity: GS’s International Dual Degree Programs Forge New Paths in Nontraditional Education."