Olympian Izzy Cerullo ’13 Recalls Love for Art Hum, Low Steps

Izzy Cerullo headshot
Isadora “Izzy” Cerullo ’13 is an Olympic rugby sevens athlete; in December, she was nominated as best rugby athlete by the Brazilian Olympic Committee. Cerullo recently retired from international rugby to join the LA 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games Organizing Committee, applying the skills she acquired on the rugby pitch.

Born in the United States to Brazilian parents, Cerullo graduated from the College with a degree in biology and a special concentration in human rights, and planned to go to medical school. Instead, she moved to Brazil in 2014 to pursue her Olympic dream. Since then, Cerullo’s journey has included a bronze medal in the 2015 Toronto Pan American Games, five South American titles, participation in the Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, and leading her team as co-captain in the 2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco. She is the first Brazilian ambassador for Athlete Ally and the Gay Games, standing up for LGBTQ+ equality and inclusion in sport. When she is not chasing a rugby ball or doing heavy lifting, she likes to bake for her wife, Marjorie, play with her two cats and read a good book.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

tokyo 7_Mike Lee

Cerullo on the pitch at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Mike Lee

I vividly remember being pretty overwhelmed by it all: living away from my brothers for the first time (as a triplet, the distance was harder than I thought it would be); being surrounded by peers who came from private schools, who seemed to have a much easier time navigating discussion-based class settings; sorting through the unimaginably wide spectrum of activities (clubs, events, etc.) to choose from — the list goes on. I desperately wanted to fit in and find my community, so I tried many new things and threw myself into exploring my newfound autonomy as the “young adult in New York City” that I imagined myself to be. This ranged from playing coed sports with people I had never met, to going to the opera for the first time, to crowd-surfing at my first Bacchanal. I was developing ever more courage to better understand and be myself. It was in my sophomore year that I discovered rugby and finally felt like I had found my crowd.

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

I lived in Wallach Hall in a single room within a suite. I actually felt like I had lucked out, even if the walls were surprisingly thin. It was nice to not have to share a bathroom with so many people, and I was right next to the dining hall.

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

Art Hum, which I left for my last semester of senior year through some combination of procrastination and scheduling incompatibility. I ended up taking the class with the chair of the department at the time, Holger Klein, who was so engaging and passionate that I truly wished I had been able to take another class with him.

I also had an incredible Lit Hum instructor, Kathleen Smith GSAS’13, who was able to bring every student in the class into the discussions. It was my first experience in a discussion-based course, so I definitely struggled in the beginning to keep up and feel articulate enough, but her perceptiveness and openness made me feel more comfortable in voicing my opinions and more enthusiastic about engaging with the texts.

And I would be remiss not to mention Professor Andrew J. Nathan. A conflict with one of my pre-med requirements forced me to switch Contemporary Civilization sections between semesters and I landed in Professor Nathan’s 9:00 a.m. class. He was tough, especially as I struggled through the contemporary philosophers, but I admired his thoroughness and precision of thought. When I added a special concentration in human rights, he was my professor for “Readings in Human Rights,” which examined case studies in different areas, and again later as I began to develop and research my thesis. His guidance pushed me to think more deeply and always have evidence to back my assertions.

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

This might sound cliché, but the Low Steps, specifically in the spring. I felt an implicit camaraderie with everyone who stole a few moments during their busy day to simply sit in the sunshine. During early spring, it also felt like the campus was slowly coming out of hibernation and, as the weather warmed up and the days got longer, this change in rhythm and energy was palpable and revitalizing. For studying, the reading rooms in Avery felt like the best-kept secret on campus for a cozy, secluded setting.

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

Part of me wants to say that I wouldn’t do anything differently, because how I went about things at that time reflects the person I was then, and all of that led me to where (and who) I am today. However, that being said and taking advantage of this purely theoretical exercise, I wish I could have felt less self-conscious or intimidated. My peers and I were all trying to learn and be successful, but I often convinced myself that I wasn’t on their level. I would just want to go back in time and let my younger self know that everything would more than fine.