As a high school student, Ponce de Leon Tidwell dreamed of competing in the Olympics as an equestrian. Now a senior in the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development at Columbia University, Tidwell has found his passion in broadcast journalism, focusing on natural history and climate change, and lifting up marginalized voices.
While his objectives may have changed, Tidwell has relied on the same steady advice throughout his life—“Don’t limit yourself” and “Don’t compare yourself to others.”
Preparing to graduate next spring, Tidwell reflects on his time in the program and offers advice to aspiring students in the Q&A below.
What drew you to the Sustainable Development program?
Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to go to college when I was in high school. I was a competitive equestrian and wanted to go to the Olympics, so school was not a priority for me. But things don’t always work out the way you plan.
I found new passions that I’m grateful for. I really love social justice work and making sure that historically marginalized communities are heard and that overlooked issues become recognized. When I came to Columbia, I knew I wanted to be a broadcast journalist, but I didn’t know what I wanted to specialize in. Joining the program made me realize I want to focus on natural history and environmental sciences and educate the masses about the changing climate.
What was your favorite class in the Sustainable Development program, and why?
There’s a required anthropology course simply called “The Environment.” It’s a fusion of an anthropological framework with a sustainable development framework, so you’re thinking like an anthropologist and then applying that thinking to sustainable development challenges, which is absolutely amazing.
What tips do you have for students who wish to enroll in the program?
My biggest piece of advice is to actually take a risk; take a non-traditional pathway. Dabble in all your interests and seek out diverse opportunities. I didn’t limit myself at all; if I had an interest in the arts, I found an opportunity in the arts. If I had an interest in the sciences, I found an opportunity in the sciences.
Beyond the classroom, what extracurricular activities have you engaged in?
I spent time working at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. I worked in the education department and helped write a grant for $600,000 to make culturally reflective and responsive K-12 educational materials. That was incredible!
I also worked at the Whitney Museum of American Art. I really wanted to apply my studies to the arts because I feel there hasn’t been a lot of conversation about climate in the art sphere. I made it my goal to start that conversation. I pitched an idea for a fundraiser in collaboration with Columbia Climate School called the Whitney Climate Party, which would bring together people and students from the arts, sciences, climate spaces and philanthropy for a dialogue about combating climate change and using art as a medium to increase equity around the world.
My most recent and favorite experience has been working at ABC News for “World News Tonight with David Muir.” I’m learning how to become a producer, which I see as my stepping stone to BBC’s “Planet Earth.” I’ve been able to work on a lot of the climate and environmental stories that go live on air every night. I love gathering the content, looking for sources and making a story that’s going to be impactful and resonate with the public. I want to give people actionable steps to make a change within their personal lives, but also within the global sphere.
What are your plans after graduating from the program?
Right now, I’m applying for my master’s in International Affairs at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. I will hopefully continue working at ABC as a Production Associate and move up the pathway to ideally become a Senior Executive Producer on “World News Tonight” or another ABC News show.
In the long term, I would love to work with National Geographic and get into natural history broadcasting.
What were your biggest accomplishments while at Columbia?
I’ve been privileged enough to have this wonderful opportunity to work at the Climate School and to meet people from so many diverse backgrounds and different perspectives; this has really informed my worldview and what I want to achieve in the world.
My other significant accomplishment was staying true to myself and my passions. I believe comparison is the thief of joy. During my time here, I’ve never compared myself to other people and what they are doing. So many people, especially at Columbia, find themselves in that trap where they’re looking at other people and measuring their achievements, which never leads anywhere good. Everybody has a different pathway, and we have to enjoy our individual and unique journeys that lead us to our personal ideas of success.