"Opening Up a World"
Rebecca Mostel ’75TC
While a teenager in the mid-1960s, Jon Mostel ’70SEAS commuted more than an hour each way on public transit from his home in Douglaston, Queens to get to Brooklyn Technical High School, where he aced class after class. As his wife would say decades later, Jon was “a smart kid, but a poor kid.” His mom died when he was ten years old, and his dad, who was a postal worker in Levittown, raised him with his stepmother. Jon’s father, Sam Mostel, did not know much about colleges, let alone the Ivy League. Yet one day when his dad delivered mail, Jon’s life changed entirely.
Over the years, Sam came to know the people on his carrier route, including a Hofstra University professor. When Sam dropped off packages to the professor’s home, the two would talk about Jon’s achievements in high school. The professor continued to ask about Jon, month after month, curious about this postal worker’s bright son.
One serendipitous day, the professor learned Jon would soon start his last year of high school. So, the professor asked Sam where his son planned to attend college. Sam said he didn’t know, but it needed to be an institution they could afford. The professor urged Sam to tell his son to apply to Columbia University. With Jon’s grades, the professor assured Sam, he could earn a scholarship.
And that’s what happened. Jon seized the encouragement from a man he barely knew. He applied to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) to study chemical engineering, which would open doors to higher paying jobs. Jon was accepted to Columbia and thrived, often helping pre-med students with their organic chemistry homework. After Columbia, Jon worked for years at Brooklyn Union Gas (BUG), rising up the managerial ranks.
About a decade into his fifteen-year employment at BUG, Jon decided to attend Brooklyn Law School by night while continuing to work at BUG by day. His employer paid for his degree. With job offers from 10 law firms, Jon graduated law school as valedictorian about four years later. He went onto a successful career bridging his legal and engineering training in environmental law.
Along the way, Jon married a fellow Columbian, Rebecca Falk Mostel ’75TC, who studied speech pathology at Teachers College. When Rebecca learned Jon came to Columbia thanks to a lucky comment from a near-stranger, whose words pushed a smart but poor kid to dream bigger, she admired her husband even more.
Towards the end of Jon’s life, he became sick with cancer. Not long before he suddenly passed away, Jon visited Columbia’s football stadium at Baker Athletics Complex with his beloved son, Ben, and baby granddaughter, Jenna. The family ate lunch while looking out at the Palisades across the Hudson. Jon had sold hotdogs at that stadium as a student. And he and Rebecca watched football games there when they dated. “We’d kid over how bad the team was back then,” says Rebecca. She knew Columbia was special to Jon for the future it gave him and his children.
When Jon passed away in October 2018, Rebecca in her grief wondered what she and her two sons, Ben and Adam, could do to honor Jon’s life. Jon loved his sons as well as his daughter-in-law Dr. Laura Melnick and son-in-law Chris Sprauer. Rebecca thought back to Jon’s father, the postal worker, and how a smart but poor kid could transform his path with an education.
Less than a year after his death, Rebecca gave to Columbia Engineering to create an annual scholarship for an undergraduate with a similar background as her late spouse. “Another smart but poor kid,” she says.
The Jon R. Mostel and Family Scholarship supports, in the following order of priority, the child of a civil servant (“People who are just trying to make a living,” says Rebecca), a first-generation student, and a female student. Women are underrepresented in the engineering profession, so Rebecca wanted to give a bright woman an equal shot at career opportunities like Jon’s.
In December 2020, Rebecca met the first recipient, Camille Morocho, a first-generation Engineering student from Queens, New York. Her father came to the U.S. from Ecuador in the 1980s, and her mother joined him in 1994. They couldn’t finish college in their home country because they needed to make money at a young age. Camille’s father is now a school bus driver for young students with disabilities, and her mother used to work in factories.
Like Jon, Camille excels at school and graduated at the top of her high school as one of the only women in her class. She went to a specialized aviation school, which drew her to engineering. “For years, people told me that I couldn’t drill or rivet as good as men because I’m a woman. But we’re just as capable if not more if we put our minds to it, and if we are given chances,” says Camille.
At Columbia, Camille wants to study aeronautics to one day invent new plane technology. But she would not have ended up at Columbia without people like that professor who believed in Jon. “His dad delivering mail that day transformed his life forever. For me, I had an academic advisor in high school who pushed me to apply to Columbia,” she says.
Camille and Jon’s stories inspire Rebecca to make a difference.
“Education opens up a world to people,” says Rebecca. “If you give that to somebody, you improve the world for everyone.”