'A Mentor is Someone Who Inspires': Denizcan Ozdemir Motivates Local Youth to Dream Without Limits
While most 10-year-olds are concerned with cartoons and action figures, Columbia student Denizcan Ozdemir (CC'25) was avidly browsing through resources, planning where the next chapter of his educational journey would be. Coming from a family who hails from Turkey, as a first-generation student, he had to figure out how to navigate the massive landscape of the New York City public school system—oftentimes on his own.
It was his childhood experiences that would later inspire him to be an advocate for equity in education; with a mission to ensure first-generation youth don't have to journey through the college application process alone. Now, as a mentor at Columbia's Double Discovery Center—a program designed to support local youth in pursuing higher education—Ozdemir is focused on breaking down college access barriers for youth whose stories mirror what he's been through.
For National Mentoring Month (January), we spoke with Ozdemir about the power of mentorship, the best piece of advice he's received, and book recommendations.
How did your upbringing influence your work in the youth empowerment space?
I grew up in New York City. I am the son of two immigrants from Turkey. I am a first-generation, low-income college student. I attended New York City public schools my entire life. Finding my way through the New York City public school system was a difficult experience for me because I had to navigate my education entirely by myself. My parents were only able to finish school up to fifth grade because of their financial circumstances in Turkey.
I had to figure out how to essentially apply to middle school, high school, and college on my own without the support of parents who spoke English or had a college education. They helped as much as they could, but taking on responsibilities when I was younger and having to make these decisions allowed me to witness first-hand the inequities that exist within the city’s public school system. Through my experiences, I gained a passion not only for education equity but also for broader goals of making politics and law equitable so that no student at the age of 10 has to experience what I went through.
What is your earliest memory of experiencing the power of mentorship?
When I was in elementary school, I had a substitute teacher who noticed that, unlike my classmates, I didn’t have parents who spoke English and because of that I was falling a little bit behind. Anytime she would come to our school as a substitute teacher, she would pull me aside during recess and talk to me about what I needed, how I felt about what we were learning, and if there was anything she could help me with. Even though it wasn’t a consistent mentor relationship and I only saw her a couple of times a year, the fact that there was someone there who cared about my academic success, saw my potential, and knew with just a little bit of guidance and support I could be successful, meant a lot for me.
I also was lucky enough to attend a high school where there’s a really strong informal mentorship network between the students. I truly credit my peers for helping me get into college by sharing information and supporting me along the way. I built very close relationships with a couple of students who were a year above me. They, similar to me, came from first-generation, low-income backgrounds and applied to college through the QuestBridge application. They showed me going to a good college, without going into extreme debt, was possible. That in and of itself was a super transformative experience.
The fact that there was someone there who cared about my academic success, saw my potential, and knew with just a little bit of guidance and support I could be successful meant a lot for me.
From your perspective, how would you define a mentor?
Someone who guides you. Someone who steers you in the right direction. Someone who supports you. A mentor is someone who inspires, challenges the things you think about yourself, and helps you see a greater vision of yourself and what’s possible. Due to inequities that exist within the public school system, many youths feel like they won’t amount to much. A mentor’s responsibility is to show those students they do matter, their voices do matter, they can make a difference, they deserve to be successful, and that they are successful.
The reason why mentorship is so powerful is because it serves as something that helps mentees see beyond their limits. That was certainly the case for me and it’s something that I try to replicate in the mentoring that I do.
What motivated you to get involved with DDC?
I actually didn't know much about the Double Discovery Center until I applied for a class called "Equity and Access in Higher Education" taught by Roger Lehecka, who is the namesake of DDC. I took the class knowing that a component of it would be volunteering at the DDC. From the moment I stepped into the DDC office and I experienced the mentor orientation, I knew it was something I wanted to stick with throughout the rest of my time at Columbia. I’ve been able to mentor more than a dozen students within the past year.
What has been the highlight of mentoring through DDC?
Something that stands out is the moment when any mentee or student realizes what’s possible for them. Sometimes you’ll sit down with students and they’re very ambitious and know exactly what they want. Other times you’ll get students who are extremely intelligent and driven but have never been given that reassurance that they can achieve things they couldn’t even imagine. That’s where I step in. I want to assure them a fantastic education—that is accessible and affordable—isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Seeing their faces light up knowing that they have options and a future ahead of them, is a highlight for me.
How is DDC filling the gap when it comes to supporting low-income and first-generation college-bound youth?
Ultimately, what makes DDC so successful at filling gaps within the education system is its approach to mentoring students. Instead of seeing students through a deficiency model—putting the focus on the lack of experiences, knowledge, or social-cultural capital—DDC emphasizes what these students have, the valuable experiences they bring to college campuses, the amazing insights their experiences have granted them, and how that can help them in their future.
DDC talks to every single student, gets to know their story, and takes the time to learn about their unique capabilities to help them craft the best plan for their future. The program is there to uplift students every step of the way.
DDC emphasizes what these students have, the valuable experiences they bring to college campuses, the amazing insights their experiences have granted them, and how that can help them in their future.
Any book recommendations for young scholars and students?
I’m an enjoyer of nonfiction and fiction equally. Any book by Toni Morrison, but especially Song of Solomon. I think it’s a fantastic book, especially for students and young people because it teaches such important life lessons without being super inaccessible or pretentious.