Take Five with Zak Ringelstein ’08


Revolution Summer Photography

Zak Ringelstein ’08 was the first-ever millennial to be nominated for the U.S. Senate by the Democratic Party. Prior to his 2018 run in Maine, Ringelstein was named to the 2015 Forbes “30 Under 30” list for founding the education company UClass (it was later sold to Renaissance Learning). After earning a master’s in education from Arizona State in 2010, Ringelstein taught for five years in the United States and East Africa. He is a contributor for The New York Times and Forbes.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I was a wide-eyed New England kid who wanted to change the world but didn’t know how. I had just spent the summer as a camp counselor, living in the backwoods of New Hampshire, and was immediately blown away by the opportunities New York City offered. But it was teaching at a nearby preschool during my orientation and seeing the reality of American economic inequality that left an indelible mark on my life during those first few weeks.

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

I roomed with J.D., a New York City native whom I had met on accepted students day and who is still a friend. We spent a lot of late nights (maybe too many, if you ask my professors) debating about the state of the world. I loved everything about J.D., except for his analog alarm clock that never stopped ticking. We lived on Carman 7 and had a breathtaking view of nearby water towers and dormmates buzzing at all hours of the night.

What class do you most remember and why?

I’ll never forget my history thesis seminar with Professor Kenneth T. Jackson. Jackson is a leading scholar of post-WWII America and New York City history, but retained a sense of child-like curiosity. He was far more interested in students debating issues and exploring how they can make a difference than seeking pre-defined answers. It was this spirit of inquiry and hunger to do good in the world that drew me to public service, from the beginning of my career as a public school teacher to my recent Senate run. .

This is largely indicative of what I loved about Columbia as a whole. It’s the essence of education rooted in real, authentic learning. It’s not about reading a text to answer questions, but enjoying a book so much that you debate it with your friends over lunch. It’s not about listening to lectures by professors, it’s about exposing students to perspectives from people you might disagree with. It’s not about sitting with your thoughts, it’s about going out into the field and trying them out. It’s not about superficial interactions, it’s about building relationships that you can work on international problems with (for example, Professor Jeffrey Sachs, whom I interned for at the Millennium Village Project in Uganda, has become a good friend and recently spoke at an event during my campaign). It’s not about accepting notions to get good grades or fit in, it’s about living with the questions and finding truth in the quest.

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

The Thinker statue has a special place in my heart because my grandfather gave me a small replica of it, and walking by it on my way to class always reminded me of the deeper, more contemplative side of academics — one rooted in the moral universe and the great quest for justice. It is this quest for justice that Columbia’s approach to learning helped spark in me and that I will continue to take as long as I am on this earth.

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

I’d do it all again. Except maybe Calculus 3!