’23 Valedictorian Found True Meaning of Community



Yousef Abou Areda ’23, this year’s valedictorian, majored in psychology on the pre-med track. During his time at the College, Abou Areda interned at the Center for Justice, an on-campus organization dedicated to ending mass incarceration; he was a TA for several prison education courses and supported programs that assist formerly incarcerated individuals with successful reintegration into society. Abou Areda’s experiences at the center inspired him to pursue an honors thesis that examined how education and rehabilitation can reform the justice system. He also conducted research at the Adaptive Behavior Lab, where he studied the neural mechanisms of learning and temporal processing under conditions of uncertainty. Abou Areda has also spearheaded several philanthropy projects on campus, including Raise4Refugees, which raised $12,000 to provide humanitarian resources to refugees during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The son of Egyptian immigrants, Abou Areda credits his parents for his accomplishments and thanks them for the endless sacrifices they made so that he could have the opportunities he has today. He plans to attend medical school in order to improve the quality of life for under-resourced communities around the world.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I frequently suffered from imposter syndrome. The fast-paced environment took me by surprise, and the workload was much more intense than high school. One of the most meaningful lessons that I took from this time was never to compare myself to others. People learn in different ways and at different paces, and one’s learning style is not a reflection of their intellectual abilities. I did my best to learn from other people, including their study techniques and approaches to problem solving. Not only did this improve my mental health and confidence, but it also enhanced my academic performance tremendously!

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I lived in Wallach, which is where I met many of my closest friends. The community we fostered immediately made Columbia feel like a home to me. While everyone came from different backgrounds, we did not let our differences prevent us from fostering meaningful friendships. Rather, our differences brought us closer, allowing us to teach each other about our respective cultures, values and beliefs. These friendships and experiences taught me the true meaning of community — a space where everyone feels comfortable expressing themselves without fear of judgment. I hope to continue building communities similar to the ones I have found here while spreading acceptance and positivity into every space I enter.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

One of my most memorable experiences was reading The Panopticon in Contemporary Civilization. I vividly recall one of my classmates acknowledging that prisons were an ineffective way of addressing crime, but he struggled with conceptualizing an alternative form of justice that could be used to replace incarceration. Having done prison reform work at the Center for Justice, I was able to discuss concepts such as restorative justice and rehabilitative models, which are more effective in reducing recidivism. This opened my eyes to how the world itself is a classroom, and that our experiences outside the classroom have a massive influence on the conversations we have inside them.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

My favorite spot will always be in front of Butler at night. I remember seeing the library lights for the first time in high school, and immediately fell in love with Columbia. After studying until 3:00 a.m. there some nights, I would always take a few minutes to decompress and capture the beautiful light.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

The most meaningful experiences I have had are the friendships I have formed. Whether it was working through difficult physics problems with my peers, enjoying late nights at JJ’s or evening walks discussing Kant’s objective morality, I developed friendships that will last a lifetime. If there is anything I would like to redo, it would be meeting my friends again for the first time!