’21 Valedictorian Remembers Special Times at the College

Leopold headshot
Leopold Aschenbrenner ’21 is his class’s valedictorian. An economics and mathematics-statistics major from Berlin, Aschenbrenner is particularly interested in issues surrounding existential risks, economic growth and the very long run. He is currently a research affiliate at the Global Priorities Institute at Oxford and was a research assistant in Columbia’s economics and political science departments. He co-founded and co-organized Columbia College Effective Altruism and was a member of the Columbia Debate Society. After graduation, Aschenbrenner will be a research fellow at the Forethought Foundation.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I was just 15, and I was coming from Germany, an ocean away. It was all quite thrilling. I still remember being totally in awe of the campus and New York City, and how exciting it was to meet all my classmates. It was pretty intense, in all respects. One of the things that was new to me, coming from a pretty normal high school was everybody’s sheer work ethic. But I adjusted quickly; I loved throwing myself into my classes. I soon found a community on the debate team — the guidance and mentorship of the upperclassmen on the team meant a lot. The Scholars Program was invaluable too, most of all my absolutely wonderful advisor, Lavinia Lorch.

One of my favorite memories from my first few months was taking a trip to D.C. with the Roosevelt Institute and watching Supreme Court oral arguments in person. (To get in we had to be in line at 3:00 a.m.!)

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

Ah, Carman! It wasn’t renovated yet, so it still had the classic cinderblock vibe. I had been unsure about living in a double, but it turned out great. I definitely got the real “college experience.”

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

I don’t think I can pick just one. I loved Lit Hum and CC; they gave me a proper liberal arts education, for which I am so grateful. I also think “University Writing” is underrated. I complained about it at the time, but I learned a lot. I also had the chance to take a bunch of really fantastic foundational classes that I would call my “extended Core”: “War, Peace, and Strategy” with Richard K. Betts; “War in Germany” with Adam Tooze; and “Freedom of Speech and Press” with President Lee C. Bollinger — I can’t recommend them enough.

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

I loved the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary; it was always a respite, especially during finals, when the rest of campus became so frenetic. At some point I also developed a habit of regularly visiting the beautiful St. Paul’s Chapel.

Not on campus, but nearby, is the General Grant National Memorial aka Grant’s Tomb. I’m not sure why, but it always drew me. I think it reminded me of the larger arc of things, the true stakes. Along these lines too, I don’t think anyone pays attention to the inscription on Low Library, but it always struck me, and I always appreciated it when I walked past: “… maintained and cherished from generation to generation | for the advancement of the public good | and the glory of Almighty God.”

Finally, though not a physical spot, the Columbia EA (Effective Altruism) community really became my home the last couple of years. I met most of my good friends there. And I took away so much from our discussions.

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

To not have it during Covid — but alas! In all seriousness, mostly I wish I could have started even earlier.