Columbia’s School of General Studies announced that filmmaker, author, and photographer Elegance Bratton, GS ‘14, will be the Class of 2021 keynote speaker in an email sent to students Tuesday evening.

Award-winning filmmaker Elegance Bratton, GS ‘14, will be the keynote speaker at Columbia’s School of General Studies’ Class Day, according to an email from GS Dean Lisa Rosen-Metsch. Bratton has garnered widespread acclaim for his work, earning a GLAAD award nomination for his 2018 Viceland TV series My House and premiering his recent short film Buck at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. 

Bratton got his start in film as a combat filmmaker in the US Marine Corps after being kicked out of his home at age 16 due to his sexuality. He shot over 400 hours of footage for his debut independent documentary film, Pier Kids, as a student at GS. After graduating in 2014 with a degree in African-American Studies, he enrolled in the Graduate Film Program at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts, earning an MFA in directing and writing. He is currently working on a feature film called The Inspection, about a homeless, gay, Black man who joins the Marines.  

This year’s School of General Studies Class Day Ceremony will be held online on April 28, at 11:00 am EST.

Below is the full email sent to students from GS Dean Rosen-Metsch tonight at 6:15 pm:

Dear Class of 2021 Graduates,

I very much look forward to celebrating your graduation at this year’s virtual Class Day ceremony on Wednesday April 28 at 11 a.m. EDT, and again at the University’s 267th Commencement on Friday, April 30 at 10:30 a.m. EDT, when President Bollinger will confer your degrees.

In celebration of your accomplishments, I am pleased to announce the Class of 2021 keynote speaker, valedictorian, and salutatorian.

Class Day Keynote Speaker | Elegance Bratton ’14

This year’s Class Day Speaker is Elegance Bratton, an award-winning filmmaker, photographer, and author who has been featured in the New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter, Deadline, and Variety, and whose films have played in nearly 150 film festivals worldwide, including Sundance, Outfest, and the British Film Institute’s London Film Festival. Elegance was selected as one of Indiewire’s 25 LGBT Faces to Watch in 2019, and is the winner of the 2021 Truer Than Fiction Award. 

Having been kicked out of his childhood home at 16 because of his sexuality, Elegance joined the U.S. Marine Corps at 25 and became a combat filmmaker—an experience that would lead to a lifelong passion for filmmaking. He came to GS in 2011 and began work on Pier Kids, his directorial debut, soon thereafter. Over the next three years, he shot 400 hours of footage for the independent documentary—funded through Kickstarter—that follows three queer and trans homeless youth on NYC’s iconic Christopher Street Pier to show the intricate ways queer people of color utilize public space to build chosen family. The film has played at film festivals around the world and won numerous awards.

In 2014, Elegance graduated from Columbia GS with a degree in African-American Studies, having been named to the Dean’s List and awarded a 2012 Humanity in Action fellowship to study French social justice movements. Following Columbia, Elegance enrolled in New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Film Program, from which he earned an MFA in directing and writing in 2019. During his time at Tisch, he served as the Filmmaker in Residence at Reel Works, a nonprofit filmmaking program that provides free training to more than 500 at-risk youth citywide and wrote and directed his debut narrative short Walk for Me, which tells the story of Hannah, a young trans girl whose secret life is discovered by her mother at a gay ball. The film played at more than 100 festivals worldwide, garnering numerous awards along the way.

Elegance has published books on photography and poetry, is the creator and executive producer of the GLAAD-nominated and Cannes MIPCOM-winning 2018 Viceland television series My House, and his most recent short film, Buck, premiered domestically as an official selection at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and abroad at the 2020 London Film Festival (BFI), and is being developed into a television series. Elegance’s current project, The Inspection, was selected for support by Tribeca All Access and Film Independent Fast Track in 2019, and is being produced by Gamechanger Films.

To read Elegance’s full bio, please visit the GS website.

Valedictorian | Christopher Thompson

The valedictorian of the Class of 2021 is Christopher Thompson. Christopher grew up in New Orleans, and after graduating from high school in 2004, embarked on a nontraditional path including a career as a fine dining chef for the majority of his twenties, working in restaurants while volunteering on farms throughout the United States and Europe.

At age 30, Christopher decided he wanted a change, enrolling in community college. During this time, Christopher volunteered with America Reads, tutoring at-risk first and third graders in English and reading, and with Sprout City Farms, an urban farming initiative in Denver. He also discovered anthropology, which became his primary pursuit and passion. After one year of study, Christopher was accepted to GS, and quickly became involved in student life, first serving as the Health and Wellness Representative—and then as Student Body President—of the General Studies Student Council. He is the co-founder and former vice president of the Columbia Recovery Coalition, a student-led organization that advocates for and supports members of the Columbia community in recovery from emotional disorders, substance use, and traumas. He also worked as a Peer Advisor, helping guide GS students through their experience at Columbia, and volunteered again with America Reads, this time at P.S. 125 in Harlem.

Christopher is a recipient of the GS Service Award, the GS Change Agent Award, was named to the Dean’s List, and was inducted into the GS Honor Society. He graduates summa cum laude with a degree in sociocultural anthropology. After graduation, he will pursue graduate study in anthropology as the foundation of an academic career, during which he will continue to examine inequality in the American South. 

To read Christopher’s full bio, please visit the GS website.

Salutatorian | Qimeng Shi

The salutatorian of the Class of 2021 is Qimeng Shi. Qimeng grew up in China, and is a graduate of the Joint Bachelor’s Degree Program between City University of Hong Kong and Columbia University. From an early age through high school, she spent time visiting—and eventually helped coordinate donations for—a local shelter caring for orphans and older adults, and these experiences led to her development of a strong belief in the power of economics to bring about policies that effect social change. Ultimately, she decided to pursue economics in college in an effort to learn how she could help address income inequality. 

At CityU, Qimeng served as a presenter and student organizer for the University’s Pre-Arrival Orientation, as well as a student mentor and peer-assisted learning leader for the Department of Economics and Finance. She also participated in the National Investment Bank Competition in Canada and served as an executive committee member for Technology & Education: Connecting Cultures, where her duties included managing the group’s funds and expenses, as well as organizing the Nonprofit Organization Leadership Training Program (NLTP), which aims to cultivate entrepreneurship in non-profit organizations. Outside of her studies, Qimeng volunteered with Read-Cycling, where she worked with a team of local residents, and served as a translator for the 17th World Youth Bridge Team Championship.

At GS, Qimeng continued her study of economics, especially interested in courses that focused on poverty and inequality that were uniquely offered at Columbia. She worked as a teaching assistant for Intermediate Microeconomics in the Department of Economics, and also worked with Professor Tamrat Gashaw on his research regarding asymmetric risk-taking behavior of foreign and domestic banks.

Qimeng was named to the Dean’s List, and was inducted into the GS Honor Society and Beta Gamma Sigma, the international business honor society. She graduates summa cum laude with a degree in financial economics. After graduation, Qimeng will attend the Master in Financial Technology Program at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), and eventually plans to pursue a career in a financial technology-related field and contribute to economic development in Mainland China.

To read Qimeng’s full bio, please visit the GS website.

Baccalaureate Service | GS Speakers

I am also pleased to announce that Class of 2021 GS graduate Khadija Baldeh will speak at the Baccalaureate Service, which will take place on Friday, April 30, at 10:30 a.m. EDT via live web broadcast.

For more on graduation activities and ceremonies, as well as a graduation checklist, please see the Graduation section of the GS website.

Congratulations! I look forward to celebrating this great accomplishment with you.


Lisa Rosen-Metsch

Dean, Columbia University School of General Studies

Professor of Sociomedical Sciences

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