Get to Know These Four Local Double Discovery Center Alumni Making a Difference

Here's how these grads are taking what they learned on Columbia's campus into their work in the community. 

Kymani Hayden
June 12, 2024

The Roger Lehecka Double Discovery Center at Columbia University (DDC) has had a vibrant history, which started in 1965 when Columbia College and Barnard students created Project Double Discover (PDD). Over the years, DDC has evolved and now serves more than 1,000 students from under-resourced communities.

Alumni of DDC have gone on to do amazing things ranging from community powerhouses to entrepreneurs to educators and so much more.

In honor of graduation season and DDC quickly approaching its 60th year, Columbia Neighbors wanted to shine a light on four former students who are carrying the mission of the DDC in their daily lives. 

Sherley Tejada (DDC'21)

A young woman poses for a portrait photo.

Meet Sherley Tejada, a DDC'21 alumna who is currently studying at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, majoring in Forensic Science with a double concentration in Molecular Biology and Criminalistics. It was through the DDC program that Tejada was able to hone her skills by taking courses in STEM and writing during her senior year of high school. 

When asked what she enjoyed most about the program, she referred to the program's commitment to building a diverse and inclusive community of students and faculty. "Enticing, community, and comfortable" are the three words Tejada used to describe her overall experience at DDC. 

A native New Yorker born and raised in the South Bronx, Tejada credits Little Dominican Republic as one of her favorite Uptown spots because of the amazing food and people that transport her right back home. Sherley is now working at an Organic Chemistry lab doing research on cancer cells and completing independent research on DNA databases. 

Check out Tejada's nonprofit organization "The First Gen Project," a true labor of love inspired by what she learned at DDC. Here's how you can connect with her: LinkedIn | Website.

Stephon Watford (DDC'14)

A young man wearing a graduation cap poses for a photo.

Meet Stephon Watford, a DDC'14 graduate with a background in hospitality management. A Harlem native, Watford attended the Frederick Douglass Academy before studying at CUNY's New York City College of Technology.  

"My fondest memory from DDC was the time spent on Columbia University's campus where we got to stay over for the weekend with the black student organization," Watford said. "It was so cool to get almost a preview of what college life would be like." 

Watford reflected on the abundance of resources DDC mentors and staff shared with him, which, in turn, made his college application process much smoother than anticipated.

When asked to describe his experience as a DDC student in three words, Watford proclaimed: "pivotal, growth, nurturing."

Watford is a true neighbor of the University, living just a block away from his favorite Uptown spot: Morningside Park. Watford currently works at New York Presbyterian in Radiology, where he supports administrative operations, but Watford is also a student of the culinary arts.

Steph's Sweets, Watford's business specializing in event cakes and other baked goods is quite the delicious treat! Watford shared with us that one thing he learned during his time at DDC that he applies to his real life today is the perspective of always chasing after his dreams. Be on the lookout for a Steph's Sweets storefront soon!

Here's how to get connected with Watford: Steph's Sweets Instagram.

Catherine Valderrama (DDC'14)

A young woman with red hair poses for a selfie photo.

Meet Catherine Valderrama, another Frederick Douglass Academy graduate and DDC'14 alumna. Valderrama is also a graduate of SUNY Albany and the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, where she earned a Master's of Public Administration with a concentration in Finance and Management. "Transformative, inspirational, and joyous" are the three words Catherine uses to verbalize her experience at DDC.

"My fondest memory in the Double Discovery Center was move-in day," Valderrama said. "It was the first time I pictured myself attending and graduating from college. Conversations as such weren’t prevalent at home, however I just knew I wanted to be successful. In low-income communities, the key to success has always revolved around pursuing higher education.

"I remember being in my single dorm room, unpacking my belongings for the summer filled with excitement to explore the world outside of my comfort zone. To top it off, I was going to make new friends from all over New York City. It was an amazing opportunity to meet folks around my age group with similar interests and aspirations."

Valderrama spoke of the homework help after school and Regents/SAT-prep classes on Saturdays offered through DDC's programming and how the diversity of courses and varying avenues of support were pillars for her academic success. She described feelings of gratitude for being awarded the opportunity to attend a program where she could utilize subsidized academic assistance and resources, in addition to receiving stipends at the end of the program's summer academy sessions. 

Harlem Shake, FUMO, Sugar Hill Creamery, Jacob Restaurant, and Magic Johnson Theatre are a few of her Uptown favorites as a Harlemite. 

In the professional sector, Valderrama spearheads a humanitarian crisis-based project in Manhattan for NYC Health & Hospitals as Director of Community Affairs. She oversees daily operations among various vendors including, but not limited to Supply, Security, Social Services, Medical, and Administration.

Something Valderrama has taken with her since her time at DDC is the notion of "be the change," the mantra created by her cohort of students during her first summer as an Upward Bound Summer Academy student. This is something she has amplified in her academic and professional careers. 

Here's how you can connect with Valderrama: LinkedIn.

Destiny Howell (DDC'19)

A young woman stands tall posing for a photo.

Meet Destiny Howell, a DDC'19 graduate from Beacon High School with a Bachelor of Arts in Physics from CUNY-Hunter College.

When asked about her fondest memories from her time at DDC, Howell spoke about the lifelong friendships she was able to cultivate. During Howell's time with the program, she was able to participate in the Macquarie summer internship as well as attend a program with NBC Universal

The East Harlem resident often stops by Five Guys when visiting DDC in her free time and is currently navigating through the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School summer program. Once the program is completed, Howell is headed off to France to study abroad and immerse in French culture.

"Empowering, community, and the future: those are my three words to describe DDC," Howell said.

Howell shared with us that DDC taught her to not be afraid to jump into opportunities even though they may seem intimidating initially. The wisdom she shares? "Do not give yourself the 'no.' Let 'them' decide if they want to have you in their journey."

Here's how you can connect with Howell: LinkedIn.

You can learn more about the Roger Lehecka Double Discovery Center here, including information on how local high school students can apply for the program. Applications are reviewed on a rolling basis and local students are encouraged to apply today. There are also opportunities for both community members and Columbia students to volunteer with the program.

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