A graduation 12 years in the making: One Syrian activist's road to his college degree

Qutaiba Idlbi, posing at Columbia University in New York where he graduated this month. Having fled strife in Syria, he had to overcome a lot more than online classes to make it to graduation.

(CNN)Though Columbia University's commencement this year looked a little different than expected, for graduate Qutaiba Idlbi, the conclusion of his studies carried a special significance that a webcast ceremony stemming from covid-19 restrictions couldn't dampen.

"I feel like things are finally falling in place," Idlbi told CNN.
Idlbi's journey to his bachelor's degree stretches over the course of 12 years and multiple continents, with Syria's political uprising as a backdrop. It concluded this week in New York.
"It was just all meant for me to come here and finish at Columbia," he said.

    Inspired by his father's activist past

    Idlbi grew up in Damascus, the son of a non-violent political activist. When Idlbi was 15, his father, Yusef, passed away. It was a turning point for Idlbi's own political activity.
    "Knowing about his history after he passed away and my own interest kind of shaped the way I started doing things," he said.
    Qutaiba Idlbi as a child with his father, Yusef, whose political activism influenced his own path.
    Idlbi graduated from high school in 2008. After receiving an associate's degree in finance, he began studying toward a four-year degree at a private Damascus university.
    But soon after Idlbi began his studies in 2011, uprisings began again in Syria.
    "I was involved from the very beginning, organizing demonstrations, delivering aid to besieged areas," he said.
    Idlbi says he was detained multiple times by Syrian authorities for his political activities. After his second detention, as he tried to prepare for his June 2011 exams, another warrant was issued for his arrest. Idlbi decided then it was time to go into hiding, eventually leaving Syria.
    In 2013, he was invited to the U.S. for a fellowship program run by the State Department. Three years later, still in the U.S. pursuing advocacy work, Idlbi decided it was time for him to continue his studies.
    "Not having my bachelor's -- it was kind of always hovering over my head as this thing I really needed to finish," Idlbi said.

    "Mission Impossible"

    Idlbi received a scholarship specifically for displaced students from around the world from Columbia and was accepted into the university's School of General Studies, which caters to students with less-traditional college paths.
    He began his full-time studies in late 2017, and simultaneously worked full time for a U.S. military contractor.
    "It was really kind of like 'Mission Impossible,'" Idlbi said.
    But when he wrote his papers, he felt he could freely express his opinions.
    Idlbi spoke in 2015 about the horrors he faced while being held by the Assad Regime during the unveiling in Washington of "Caesar's Photos: Inside Syria's Secret Prisons."
    "For me, in Syria, much of the whole fight -- the idea of the whole uprising is not to make immediate change, but to allow people to be themselves," he said.
    Now, Idlbi is studying for the LSAT exam and planning to apply to graduate school later this year either in law or public policy.
      But first, he is taking some time to celebrate in small ways with family and friends, albeit from afar.
      "If it's in a year or two when we have our ceremony, it's fine," he said. "I'm just happy that I'm done with this and to continue moving forward."