Fabian Pfortmüller on How Columbia General Studies Educates a Nontraditional Student

In Chapter 2 of 19 in his 2011 Capture Your Flag interview, community builder and entrepreneur Fabian Pfortmüller shares how getting into Columbia University comes about after not getting into his first school. Applying only after taking several years to work after high school, he finds comfort at Columbia University's School of General Studies. The program is designed for nontraditional career paths, including incoming students coming from performing arts and the military. Pfortmüller is co-founder of Sandbox Network (www.sandbox-network.com). He also co-founded an innovation think tank, Incubaker (www.incubaker.com), and is part of the group's first spin-off, Holstee (www.holstee.com), an apparel brand for people who would like to wear their passion. Pfortmüller graduated from Columbia University and its School of General Studies.


Erik Michielsen: Why did you decide to attend Columbia University?

Fabian Pfortmüller: The honest answer is I originally wanted to study in the UK and no school accepted me, that’s the honest answer and I started applying in the US kind of as a consequence of that and suddenly schools started to accept me and really good schools started to accept me and I just realized that I was not an extraordinarily good student from my high school grades but I had something to show, not good grades but I had a lot of extracurricular activities.

And apparently that can be clearly seen with the process of my applications, this was valued much more here in the US than it was in the UK. But in the end it was very clear New York was the place to be, I’m a big city person, Columbia seemed like a really amazing place and Columbia has a special program which it calls the School of General Studies, which is a normal college degree you do but you have all kinds of, they call it atypical students. Students who have been entrepreneurs, students who have been in the army, who have been professional artists or have been in sports to have a college for those people to go back and make a degree and I couldn’t be happier than being there really, like it’s a fantastic place.

Erik Michielsen: Tell me more about the general studies program and how have your peers in that program inspired you?

Fabian Pfortmüller: You know I always felt little bit like a freak, especially when it comes to education but as a young entrepreneur I guess at large you’re a little bit like a freak, you decided not to go for that classical career and that’s a hard decision to take if everyone else goes straight to university becomes a banker or a consultant goes off he makes his career, does an MBA goes into middle management and then he has kids and family and that’s pretty much it and not doing that feels kind of cool but at the same time it also needs quite a lot of courage.

And I felt a freak until I came to Columbia and I saw that there’re lots of people like me and it feels really good to see that it’s absolutely normal to have an atypical education way and I would recommend it to anyone. And I think that gives me self confidence, that gives me self confidence with saying ‘I’m twenty-eight, I’m just graduating with my bachelors in May’ and it’s totally fine, it’s totally normal, you know? And I think that’s great.