Get Up and Give
Lee Ilan CC’87
As a member of the College’s first fully coeducational class, Lee Ilan CC’87 feels strongly about giving back to a community that opened its doors to her. “I think that everyone who went to Columbia was able to get something out of that experience. Just to give something back, to remain connected, to allow other students to have the types of experiences and opportunities that we had — I feel like everybody should do that.”
It’s the stone soup model. If we all put in a little something, we can build a big something...
Ilan grew up on Long Island and attended the College during a critical juncture in its history. “It was exciting to be a part of the first [fully coeducational] class,” she says. “Doing something new is always exciting. I felt like we were welcomed by the College — both the administration and current students.” Ilan chose Columbia for its cultural and ethnic diversity, as well as its acceptance and embrace of “quirkiness and self-expression.” She did not hesitate to jump into campus activities and joined a slew of extracurricular groups, organizations and causes, from Glee Club and Marching Band, to on-campus protests against South African apartheid and the then-extant chapter of a national fraternity. She was a founding member of Iota Epsilon Pi, a coeducational fraternity that challenged national norms for Greek organizations, and worked with the University’s administration to establish its governing board and rules. “Where else, other than college, do you get the opportunity to come in and have resources at your disposal to form groups around your interests?” she asks. “College is your chance to explore, to break out of whatever labels you had in high school.”
Ilan, who has spent her career in environmental work in both the public and private sectors, says she owes many of her post-graduate career opportunities to Columbia. Through the Center for Career Education (CCE), Ilan found three of the jobs that she held prior to joining the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Remediation 17 years ago. “My career trajectory is because of CCE. I went to the office and searched through the three-ring binders for jobs, long before LionShare.” Now, as a mentor through the Columbia College Alumni-Sponsored Student Internship Program, Ilan connects with current students interested in her line of work. “I feel that Columbia was instrumental in helping me to go forward on my life path, so to give and provide similar opportunities to students is very important to me. It motivates my giving,” she says.
How much you give, to me, is more of a collective thing. Together we can raise a lot of money. And it’s a community. Everyone has a different philosophy about philanthropy, but I think it’s important for everyone to have a philosophy about philanthropy.
Active involvement is a key element to paying it forward, says Ilan. “It’s the stone soup model,” she says. “If we all put in a little something, we can build a big something that supports a student advising program, or student exploration and creativity through student activities; we can give students experience with budgets, governments and negotiation. How much you give, to me, is more of a collective thing. Together we can raise a lot of money. And it’s a community. Everyone has a different philosophy about philanthropy, but I think it’s important for everyone to have a philosophy about philanthropy.”
Having donated to the Columbia College Fund almost every year since her graduation, Ilan believes that financially supporting the College is equally as important as supporting it in other ways. “Though I’m not in a position to give major gifts, I nonetheless believe that consistent giving is important. When you get to college, you’ve had it paid forward for you; when you graduate, you should pay it back. Do it so that the next students can figure out their passions and how they want to spend their time. So if you’re in a tough place and you can only contribute $10, good for you — we’re happy to have you. I’m as happy to have you there as I am to have the person who gives $10,000. You don’t start out by saying ‘I’m going to sit on the sidelines,’ and wait for the phone to ring. You get up and give.”
To motivate her classmates to give whatever they can, Ilan volunteers through the Class Agent program, through which almost 600 College alumni spanning all classes share their time, connections and talents in order to reach out to classmates to foster a strong alumni community. She will also be a co-chair for her 30th reunion, focusing on fundraising and participation.
“I love reunions,” she says. “I’ve gone to every one of mine, and have also gone to reunions that aren’t mine, which is really fun as well. I had a great experience at Columbia. The people are interesting and doing interesting things. Whether through their work, or their vocation, or their volunteering, or their life’s path and what they’ve had to contend with — that’s the essence of Columbia. It’s not just talking about the latest thing or arguing over politics. It’s about gaining more ideas and fostering deep relationships. I needed to find my people, and I feel like I did at Columbia.”