Marlee Tavlin (M.A. ’18) holds a crested gecko at the American Museum of Natural History.

Marlee Tavlin earned her master’s degree from the Anthropology & Education program in 2018. Since 2013, she has also worked as an educator at the American Museum of Natural History.

Recently, Marlee took some time with the TC Anthro blog to share some reflections on her work and her education. We hope you enjoy the interview!

What is your role at the Museum of Natural History? What sort of work do you do?

I am an educator in the Child and Family Learning sub-department of the Education department. I teach, assist and help write curricula for science classes for students ages 18 months-10 and facilitate and help manage volunteers and interns in the Discovery Room. 

Working at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) has given me the opportunity to see how effective informal science education can be from a teacher’s perspective. For the past seven years, I have worked directly with children and their families, teaching them a variety of subjects including biology, computer coding, earth science and astronomy. While I am now focused on elementary school education, I have taught science to all age groups, from Gateway Storytime for preschoolers to intensive science camps and workshops for middle and high school students.

My favorite type of science to teach is biological anthropology. I have had the opportunity to act as a facilitator in the Sackler Educational Laboratory for Comparative Genomics and Human Origins. The most rewarding programs that I have been involved with are the ones where I teach students and families who may not otherwise be able to participate because of a language barrier or because they could not afford it. This is what sparked my research interest in out of school time (OST) programming that focuses on diversity, multiculturalism and accessibility. Unfortunately, I have also come to learn that this type of programming is limited.

Your master’s thesis was about your work at the Museum, right? Could you tell us about that project?

My master’s thesis used ethnographic methods to explore the experiences of families attending the Discovery Day program at AMNH. Since its inception six years ago, I have been part of the Discovery Day program, which brings families from across the five boroughs living in New York City Public Housing to the museum for a day of informal science education.

Discovery Day, which is a collaboration amongst AMNH, NYCHA and the City Council, began in 2014. It provides a unique opportunity for low-income families to participate in science — not just as a family, but also with members of their respective communities. I interviewed children and caregiving adults and conducted participant observation. I found that attending the Discovery Day was an important piece of a continuum of science experiences for all participants, many of whom have limited access to science.

Has studying anthropology been helpful for your work at the Museum? How?

Studying anthropology has definitely been helpful with my work at AMNH. Since I work with so many different people it has given me a great lens to look through. Additionally, with the lens to notice different cultures I have taken an interest in the extremely different populations we serve at the museum.

What led you to study anthropology in the first place?

What led me to study anthropology was actually my work at AMNH. When I started there, I was a nineteen-year-old social work undergrad student at NYU. My first boss actually had studied anthropology, and the more I learned about it the more it interested me. Social work also is about understanding people and their cultures, so it was not a big leap to add anthropology as my second major in undergrad.

Even though TC’s program is in cultural anthropology, I love all types of anthropology and even worked at the Sackler Lab for Human Evolution at AMNH. I knew anthropology would be the best lens to study my research interest — the NYC school system and out of school time programming.

What were your favorite classes at TC? And who were your favorite professors?

I really enjoyed the flexibility that the anthropology program gave me to study in different departments. I enjoyed the museum education classes I took, but I think my favorite courses were definitely the research methods courses! This led me to want to pursue research and ultimately get my PhD.

One of my favorite professors was, of course, Dr. Limerick, who taught my advanced methods course. And I will never forget the insights into being an “old school” anthropologist given by Dr. Comitas!

Do you have any advice for prospective students who share your interests?

My advice for the non-profit/museum world — which usually has a tight budget and a lot of people wanting the same position, especially in the world class museums we have here in NYC — is to start with an internship, to get your foot in the door. Getting your foot in the door is key. Even if you have to start by volunteering, once you make connections it will pay off!I started at AMNH as an unpaid intern and took every opportunity I could get, whether paid or unpaid. 

For those interested in research in out of school time programming, my advice is to just apply to as many jobs as you can! Even if you are a master’s student, you should still start developing your own research projects and applying to conferences.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Masters Student Raphaelle Ayach on Starting an NGO, Making Films, and Working for the UN


Raphaelle Ayach is a current master’s student in the Anthropology & Education program at Teachers College. She has an extraordinary array of experiences that inform her studies.

We got the chance to hear about Raphaelle’s projects in a recent interview. Keeping reading to learn about her work!

You’re doing so many exciting things: leading an NGO, making films, interning at the UN, and getting your masters degree. How do you manage it all?

It has been a lot to juggle, but it’s been worth it. I’ve always been told that I ‘pack too many chickens in one truck’ but I just seem to get excited about too many things in life. Also, to be fair, the nonprofit I founded in Egypt has a wonderful Managing Director so, while I’m still involved from a strategic and bird’s eye perspective, I’m no longer involved in the day to day management and implementation.

Can you tell us about your NGO? What does the organization do? How did it get started?

Since 2012, Safarni designs and implements peace education programing that creates human connections meant to overcome prejudice and discrimination. Nowadays we use our programs for children who may see each other every day in the streets and think they are “different,” but who also just have never had a platform to meaningfully engage with each other. In Egypt , there is a big divide between Egyptians and people who migrate – particularly those from Sub-Saharan Africa who experience incredible amounts of discrimination and very little protection. They don’t attend Egyptian schools, they live in the same neighborhoods, but separate. We are currently partnering with the UN Organization for Migration, and Bassita to implement our programs in ‘fragile neighborhoods’ for increased social cohesion and inclusion.

At the time of the creation of Safarni, I was mourning the loss of a loved one who had experienced a lot of discrimination- so it was a way for me to process and leave something in his memory. At the time, I believed traveling was a great way to become accepting of difference, so I wanted to design a program that would allow low-income children the opportunity to get the benefits of traveling and creating meaningful cross-cultural connections without leaving their neighborhoods. So, I designed a simulated travel adventure program.

When it began, I thought it would just be me doing this crazy idea alone for a couple months, I was standing in a dirt street in an informal area of Cairo asking kids “do you want to discover Colombia?” and ushering them into our simulated plane inside, where Colombian people were waiting to share their culture. It was a bit crazy. But from 8 kids the program suddenly started snowballing, and soon more people wanted to volunteer than I knew what to do with, other nonprofits were requesting the program in their space, and the line of kids and parents waiting to get in for the program got so long, that we ended up having to turn children down and start creating a rotation system. In 2017 Safarni was a winner of the UNAOC & BMW Group Intercultural Innovation Award. We’re still small but we’re dedicated, and steadily growing. Over the years, the program evolved and became much more about connecting with inclusion and diversity of all forms, in our very own communities. It’s also worth noting that my time here at TC has already impacted the way I see Safarni growing in the future.

What films have you made? What inspired you to do them?

I’ve made two documentary films, Casa Margaritas (2015) and Andrew’s Adventures (2018). We just released Andrew’s Adventures online this week. It is a film about Andrew Siess, the youngest man to walk around the world- 30,000 KM at age 23!

Casa Margaritas is a portrait of a family of Colombian coffee pickers. That film is quite ethnographic, even though at the time I had no idea what that meant. I originally studied fiction filmmaking but then felt so strongly that real people are so beautiful, layered and complex, that if I were to work in fiction, I could never have the genius required to create a character with half of this rich complexity. This interest in people, their lives and stories, is what got me into multicultural education, it’s what created Safarni, what pushed me into making documentaries, and also what drew me to studying anthropology at TC.

What are you doing at the United Nations? How has working in a large organization compared to running your own projects?

I am doing a graduate internship at UNICEF, in a section that works on Climate, Environment, Resilience and Peacebuilding section. I’m especially focused on peacebuilding, which I am not only passionate about, but feels like I am building upon my previous work at Safarni. I think that having previous experience on the ground has enhanced my ability to understand the challenges to impact on the ground, in a way I could never have if I had just started working directly form an office within a larger organization. For this reason I highly recommend to all young students or graduates to focus on getting fieldwork first.

It’s very different from working at my own organization. I really enjoy (perhaps it’s the anthropologist in me) discovering the UN work culture. And especially, I am so happy to finally have a boss! I have been managing people for so many years, often feeling unsure and confused if I was doing ‘it’ right. I felt I really needed to be part of a team which I was not responsible for, and to understand the perspectives of employee. I know this is a big part of my learning. I am also lucky to be in an extremely fun team at UNICEF, I really lucked out with my bosses and colleagues!

My most exciting task so far have been organizing a dialogue between Security Council Member States and young peacebuilders at UN headquarters during the Women, Peace and Security week.

Why did you decide to study anthropology? How has anthropology helped with your other projects?

At Safarni, I was designing multicultural educational programs with anthropologists, so I was learning about the side of anthropology which, as Ruth Benedict said, makes world safe for human difference. This idea became the vision of Safarni – and for my work in general. But when working on the ground, it is fast paced and all about activities, implementation, and constant problem solving. I was getting burnt out and I needed space to reflect from a distance in order to improve my work. I knew that to continue in multicultural education I needed to learn from those who had come before me, and thought about a lot of these same questions before me.

I looked for a program that would combined my two interests: anthropology and education, and TC seemed like the perfect fit, as one of the few programs that merged these interests. Studying anthropology at TC has changed the way I approach our work at Safarni. I’m looking at our work through a much more critical and reflective lens. For example, I’m much more critical about the way we introduce the idea of cultural diversity with children, I’m much more conscientious about the ways we might be tokenizing cultures. The questions I am now asking myself in terms of educational objectives are completely different, for example instead of “how we can we get people from diverse cultures to connect?” it’s perhaps more, “how can we support a culture of authentic care?” The people closest to me say I’ve changed since studying at TC, that I notice social political implications in a way I didn’t as much before.

What have been your favorite classes and professors at Teachers College?

If I could recommend two “must take” classes, the first would be Nicholas Limerick’s class on ‘Language, Cultural Politics and Education’, which changed the way I look at how interactions are so influenced by invisible politics of power and bias. I also highly recommend Professor Hui Soo Chae’s ‘Curriculum Design’ class. He is an incredibly dedicated professor and approaches everything with a highly critical lens. It was also co-taught with Jackie Simmons who is just fantastic. I had to transcribe every time she talked, because it was so genius!

I made an effort to take classes in diverse fields, and audit as much as I could, such as with Grey Gundaker and Yolanda Sealy Ruiz (both incredible professors). For peace education and for running a non profit: Felisa Tibbitts’s ‘Peace and Human Rights Education’ as well as her M&E class were extremely helpful. Mary Mendenhall’s ‘Education in Emergencies’ is also essential if you want to work in that field.

I also learned a lot from Peter Coleman, not just in his ‘Fundamentals of Conflict Resolution’ class, but also from his workgroup which I was part of, and supporting with the Sustainable Peace Project. It is incredible work that I was so happy to have been part of for a short while. (I was able to get involved after taking his class, please note: take classes from Professors you want to work with!) I honestly wish I could have taken more classes, there are so many other incredible professors I want to learn from.

Do you have any advice for prospective students who share your interests?

I would encourage prospective students to really engage with the diversity of options available to you. A lot of my classes were not in Anthropology, and I learned a lot from being part of different circles and schools, for example I took an Applied Peacebuilding class at SIPA, which was not only interesting but connected me to a whole different group of students.

Whenever possible, ask to audit classes, and if there is something you are truly passionate about, do your research on which professors at Columbia (or not at Columbia- because you can take classes in other local universities too) are really shining in that domain. Also, get involved – ask your professors if you can help with their work, become part of student organizations. I am now an Executive Board Member of the Peace Education Network, along with Qiqi Mei and Nina Bamberg, and it’s a great way to explore connect and explore further with the TC community, on the topics we are most passionate about.

Sultan White (M.A. ’19) on Business, Anthropology, and Civil Impact


Sultan White is an alumnus of TC’s Anthropology & Education program. He earned his master’s degree earlier this year. Now in Washington DC, Sultan is working as an intern at the Obama Foundation and developing a social enterprise start-up that he founded while at Teachers College.

The Anthro Blog had the pleasure of catching up with Sultan to hear about his work in DC, his experience at TC, and his broader life journey. Read on for all the details of our conversation.

Working at the Obama Foundation must be exciting. Can you tell us about what you’re doing there?

It’s quite common for presidents to establish a foundation after they leave office. The biggest necessity is to house the library, all the archives from the presidency. But President Obama also wanted to continue his work in a meaningful way. He carried over a few initiatives, like My Brother’s Keeper, which started as an initiative to support young men of color, along with the Girls Opportunity Alliance, which tries to help the 98 million girls worldwide who don’t have access to education.

The Obama Foundation also runs a fellowship that brings 20 people from the US and 20 people from abroad to establish programs that they couldn’t necessarily do as individuals. The Foundation helps with funding, access to experts, and the huge brand that is the Obamas. We’re also helping the fellows work out their theory of change.

The Foundation has a start-up mentality, since it’s only four years old. If you’ve been there for a couple years, you’re already a veteran. This means there is also a big learning curve. People are used to the White House mentality, just plugging in and continuing whatever has been done. But now they are challenged to think more like a start-up, be more creative.

I help with all the different programs, doing systems mapping. With whatever people we’re supporting, we make a systems map to identify avenues of impact. Analyzing those avenues, we ask, which are most meaningful? Then we put together a plan to follow those.

Sounds like truly important work. Now, you’re also running your own business, right? Can you tell us about that work, too?

I got the idea while reading an article in the Tampa Bay Times about “zombie campaigns.” That term refers to a campaign bank account that is up and running, even after the politician left office, or even after they died! These accounts are left open and the money is legally allowed to be invested. Of course, people find creative ways to siphon that money for themselves, sometimes making four times their salaries using this little loophole.

The SEC is supposed to regulate this kind of activity, but they’re turning a blind eye, because the legislators who control their budget are the ones using the loophole. So I though, if campaign finance law is slow to change and regulation is slow to enforce, what’s another way we can help this issue? I thought there was an opportunity for social enterprise to help make a change.

I spent the summer of 2018 reading up, taking classes at TC. By the end of the summer, I had my idea. I pitched the idea to some of my confidants, to make sure I wasn’t crazy, and recruited a team. Together, we figured out how to tackle the problem. These campaigns have this money and it can be invested. Politicians are very conscious that their positions let them influence the market. If a politician owns equity in the fossil fuel industry, they might have an incentive to deregulate the fossil fuel industry, to see appreciation in their portfolio. If politicians own any stake in the companies, and they’re passing laws to increase the number of prisoners we have, then they’ll see an appreciation in their stocks.

We want to make sure politicians are divested from factory farms, private prisons, arms manufacturing, and fossil fuels. Instead, we can get them to make investments in companies that support women and Black and Latinx people, that have strong relationships with unions, that actively hire veterans, or that invest in renewable energy.

Our pitch to these politicians and their campaigns is that socially responsible investing will bring value three ways. The first is financial return. This isn’t charity, it’s an investment. The second is that it looks good. Politics is a game of perception, getting voters to like you. The third is that we elect these politicians to be public servants, and this is just another avenue to do their job even better. All together, if our plan works, this could help the social enterprise movement take off with both capital and policy.

That’s such an interesting idea. Has studying anthropology helped you run this business?

Definitely. There’s a common phrase business people like to throw around – know your market. There’s a lot of ways to go about that with research and data. But there’s a reason I chose to move to Washington DC to run this company. It’s to be in the mix. Not just making connections or gathering letters of intent, but actually understanding the needs of these people. What do they really want? Not just the politicians, but the people who work on the campaigns. The value of understanding that is beyond just Google research.

From the anthropology program. I understand that the only way to get past fear of the other is to get to know people by spending time with them. I’ll understand that they’re just people, who might be powerful, but they have needs and wants. This approach also helps me learn their language, which is huge for acceptance. So definitely, anthropology plays a big role in how I do business. 

Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where are you from? How did you get interested in anthropology?

I was born in San Francisco. At the time, my dad wanted to get out of San Francisco, because he thought it wasn’t great to raise kids. And for some reason he took us to Las Vegas! So I was raised in Las Vegas for most of my childhood. My parents got divorced and I had to move around a lot, so I saw so much of America at a young age. I ended up at Exeter, a boarding school in New Hampshire, where I saw snow for the first time. Exeter offered me a scholarship when I was in eighth grade, and I took it because I was sick of moving around.

That gave me a culture shock because it was the first time I was around all that wealth and prestige. It really changed me. When I first got there, my grades were terrible. They put me into a program for kids who were struggling. I ended up with a solid group of friends, along with other Black kids who went to the school. We did the same clubs and activities. I graduated and went to Middlebury. It was basically Exeter 2.0, which I couldn’t stand!

I transferred to Hawaii, where my family has deep roots. I got a huge grant because of it. Our family history is convoluted and somewhat lost, but we have our great grandmother’s papers, which showed that we had been there since Hawaii was a kingdom. I fit in much better there; Hawaii was a very diverse state.

At Hawaii, I studied economics and business, and then worked for the city when I graduated. The mayor of Honolulu appointed me to sit on a neighborhood board. I facilitated neighborhood meetings between people and their police, fire departments, and local government. That’s when I really got interested in civic engagement and people trying to make change. That can be hard to do as an economist, but I thought studying anthropology would help. I did my research, heard about the program at TC and its reputation, and I applied.

What have you been involved since you came to Teachers College?

I think if I didn’t go to Teachers College, I wouldn’t have been able to make this company. There were so many free resources there, like the design clinic or all the events where I pitched my idea.

One of my favorite things was getting involved with the Morton Deutsch Center. They do lots of practice with negotiation, which is helpful considering my interest in business, but it’s not all about winning. It’s about sustainability, finding something that’s mutually beneficial.

I also did the student accelerator at Almaworks. They have a space rented out at a WeWork in SohHo. Every week, you go down to work on your business idea with big shots. It was cool, it helped me understand the startup world a little more. It’s a little different definition of success from civil impact, but it was good to understand what I was working with.

Additionally, the Law School has a community development and business clinic, which is free legal advice for student companies. So they helped write all my founding documents and bylaws. I worked with a lawyer who wants to go into corporate law.

What were your favorite classes and professors?

Academically, TC was great. I loved the discussions, like in our Political Anthropology class with Professor Nicholas Limerick. I knew I wanted to take that class even before I came to TC. Professor Limerick’s Culture and Communication class was also great. Of course, also the Methods class with Professor Amina Tawasil. I needed to understand that for my work within my company, with my customers.

Dr. Peter Coleman’s class, Fundamentals of Conflict Resolution, was awesome, too. It works up to his sustainable peace theory. The whole conflict resolution community at Columbia has unified around it. The theory means recognizing that our world has a system in place, not just simple cause-and-effect relationships, so we have to come up with solutions that work within a whole fabric that is constantly moving. They’re using this framework to look at all these peaceful societies around the world, not just societies in conflict.

This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Rodrigo Mayorga on T.C. Courses, His Dissertation, and the Temporalities of Citizenship

Rodrigo Mayorga

Rodrigo Mayorga is a doctoral student in the Anthropology & Education program at Teachers College. After three years of coursework In New York City, he is now back in his home country, Chile, doing research for his dissertation.

While back in New York City for a brief visit, Rodrigo took some time to catch up with the TC blog. Read on to learn about his experiences and his research!

What brought you to Teachers College originally?

I’m a historian by training, and at some point I decided to shift to educational research. So I was trying to find a place where I could do interdisciplinary research and focus on other countries, since I wanted to work with the Chilean case. I wanted a place where I could combine both theoretical and practical approaches.

Also, I studied how TC alumni from Chile were part of educational reforms of my country in the 1920s. I think all this came together, and that’s what brought me here.

What professors or classes have been your favorite?

I had a really good class with Nicholas Limerick — Political Anthropology — in my last semester. It had a really nice syllabus. The things we read, especially for someone not really familiar with political anthropology, could really give you a good understanding of the field.

Also, the peers I had in that class were really helpful. It’s a class that depends a lot on the peers you have, because discussion is really important. So I think it allowed me to think through a lot of my ideas for the dissertation proposal.

I also had some wonderful classes with a visiting scholar, Ray McDermott. He was here for a year. I took Ethnography of Education with him; I TA’ed a class for him. That allowed me to understand a totally different perspective on anthropology.

And, I have to say, my first Colloquium with George Bond. It changed how I approached things here. It opened my mind to so many things.

Have you had any research experiences at TC that stood out for you?

I took an important course with Ansley Erickson, in the History & Education department. She does really interesting work with school archives and oral histories of Harlem schools. She has a really interesting perspective on how to publish. It allows you to think about other ways of publishing, like digital exhibits, but still within the parameters of academic publication.

With Professor Erickson, I published a digital exhibit of my work on how students in this Harlem school experienced World War II using school yearbooks. It wasn’t just like, “Let’s do the exhibit and upload it to the web.” We uploaded it and then gave time for reviewers to look at it and give feedback. I think in this time when we discuss the role of journals — who’s reading them, what are we doing this for — her work allows us to think this through.

Now you’re out in the field, doing dissertation research. What exactly is your dissertation about?

I’m looking at the convergence between citizenship education practices, student activism, and historical consciousness in Chile. For the last decade, Chile has been experiencing a wave of student protests. They are confronting the neoliberal policies implemented in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship. Such protests have happened before, but what’s unique is that this movement is composed of people who were born after the dictatorship. So their temporal experience, the way their memories are connected to this moment of history, is completely different from the people who actually experienced the dictatorship.

They’ve been in the streets for the last ten years, and they’re one of the first social actors to actually change the policies implemented in the years of the dictatorship. They had three big demands. One was free college tuition, paid for by the national state, which they actually achieved. Second, they changed the administration of public schools. The dictatorship transferred public schools to local management in the 1980s, which created serious inequalities. Now, though, we have a decentralized system funded by the national state. Finally, the third big change was stopping for-profit state-subsidized schools. Now, if you want state funds, you must be a non-profit school.

So, I’m trying to look at the changes from these last ten years of student protest. How have the formal citizenship education practices changed within public schools? What are the new citizenship practices that students encounter outside of the school, in the contentious political spaces that they enter? And finally, what is the role of history as a particular way of thinking about the past in all this? What makes the students different in how they think of temporality?

Now that you’re far along with the dissertation, have you thought about what projects might come next?

Well, my research is about temporality, being a citizen in the present, and not projecting too much into a future that does not yet exist. So, I’m trying to be accountable to my own ideas! But I think I would like to explore further this idea of “the uses of history.” I’m interested in the ways we think about and relate to the past, the future, and time itself. Time is an important experience that is so hard to define. Historians do a great job of thinking about time, but often just in terms of the past.

I started this project as a history teacher, believing that history education is important for citizenship. I still do, but now I’m thinking about what kind of history and kind of relation to time. Is it about being part of a national community? Is it about knowing that you are a historical actor in the present, dealing with choices every second of the day, which will become the past?

For me, this is the field of historical consciousness, which is something I would like to keep working on. I’m trying to find projects that connect with local high schools, particularly using local archives, helping teachers and students learn about the past from a local perspective. I’m curious about how that might change the way we think about identity and commitment.

Do you have any advice for prospective Teachers College students who share your interests?

First, this is a place that attracts a particular kind of people. Here, people are interested in critical thinking about social issues, while still finding ways to do something about those issues. There is a practical side to it, that must be about learning and political action. That combination is something that people considering this program should think about.

Second, this is a great and crazy place. It can be difficult to navigate, but that’s life! And that’s why it’s important to build relationships with peers — older students, younger students, new cohorts that come after you. Plus, it’s New York City, an amazing place to be. If you want to do anthropology, you need to be part of the world, and this city is a little world unto itself.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Wayétu Moore (M.A. ’19) on Writing Novels and Leading Nonprofits

Moore, Wayeětu (Yoni Levy).jpg

Wayétu Moore is finishing up her master’s degree in the Anthropology program at Teachers College this year. While that will certainly be an exciting accomplishment, not much can compare to the thrills of 2018. Last year, Graywolf Press published Wayétu’s debut novel, She Would Be King, which earned the praise of Time Magazine, the New York Times, and the New Yorker, among others.

We got the chance to ask Wayétu a few questions about her writing, her studies, and her work leading a nonprofit. Read on to learn more about her remarkable projects.

Congratulations on your novel! What has your life been like since the book came out?

Thank you! It feels surreal, frightening, manic, exhausting and beautiful. In the fall I was on the road constantly, and it’s only just slowed down. When I begin to get tired, I remember how much I’ve wanted this over the years. I am grateful.

Why did you decide to write this story?

 My family moved to America when I was 5 years old. Growing up, I didn’t hear much about Liberia outside of my home, and the absence was affecting, especially since I was aware that Liberian history was so closely linked to American history. So when I realized I wanted to be an artist, and began to write, Liberia was one of the first places I went to. It was also a way for me to reconnect with my cultural identity.

You could be totally focused on literature right now, but you’re still studying International and Comparative Education at Teachers College. What keeps you motivated to continue your studies?

Admittedly, it’s been hard to balance my career and an education that seems peripheral to my current trajectory, but I’m at the end of the road and proud that I stuck through. Other than my writing, I run a non-profit that publishes books for underrepresented readers. My non-profit is my bottom line and my true passion, and my time at TC speaks directly to its mission. That keeps me motivated.

Besides the novel and your studies, you’re also leading a nonprofit, One Moore Book. Can you tell us about that project?

While I was in undergrad I worked for an organization named Everybody Wins and I would go in to District of Columbia public schools and facilitate literacy workshops for 3-5thgraders who could not read. What I noticed right away was that there was a disinterest in literature so I began to take them books with characters that looked like them, familiar names, foods, etc. The engagement immediately increased. That experience remained with me when I moved to New York after graduate school in Los Angeles, where I attended USC for my first master’s degree in creative writing. I always had an interest in social entrepreneurship.  As a fiction writer I was navigating the literary canon myself, but knew I wanted to do something on my own. The goal of the company is to provide books to children who rarely see themselves in books. So children of countries with low literacy rates and also underrepresented cultures in the United States. We are distributed through NGOs and Ministries of Education in these countries, and in the US we’re distributed through Scholastic Book Clubs.

Do you have any advice for prospective students who also share your interests in literature and social justice?

Every sector, every profession and almost every industry has its share of injustice, so there will always be a gap that needs to be filled. Even in art. I think sometimes we forget the intersectional nature of art and the social sciences, so I would tell them to pay attention to the instances where the two collide and try to dissect those. There’s power and opportunity there.


Kayum Ahmed (Ph.D. ’19) on Open Societies, the University, and Social Movements

Khayum Ahmed

Kayum Ahmed, a Ph.D. student in the International & Comparative Education program, who now works at the Open Society Foundation.

Last semester, Kayum Ahmed took some time away from his dissertation writing and his work at the Open Society Foundation to talk with the TC Anthropology blog.

Kayum was a Ph.D. student in the International & Comparative Education program, but he also concentrated in Anthropology.

Read the transcript of our conversation below to learn about the work Kayum is doing at the Open Society Foundation, and the research he’s doing about the Rhodes Must Fall movement.

What are you doing in your career right now?

I recently joined the Open Society Foundations and was appointed a divisional director responsible for access to medicines and accountability, within the public health program at OSF.

OSF is a large philanthropic organization started by George Soros, which has a global footprint, and its aim is really to advance social justice and human rights through grantmaking.

That essentially means giving money to civil society organizations and social justice movements, to try to create what Soros refers to as “open societies.”

Can you explain the idea of an open society in more detail?

Soros draws on Karl Popper’s work to describe an open society as one in which there’s free-thinking underscored by individual rights, compared to “closed societies,” which he describes as more authoritarian. But also, problematically, Popper describes closed societies as more “tribal” societies.

So, within this discourse of open and closed societies, I find myself in an organization that politically I can certainly identify with, but also has some challenges in how it defines itself philosophically.

How does this discourse relate to your work?

My primary responsibility is really about taking on big pharmaceutical companies to reduce the cost of medicines.

I do have some ideological debates with my colleague about whether we should be focused on reducing the cost of healthcare, or making healthcare free, since it is a public good. So I hope to inject a little bit more of… well, I guess it’s seen as radical thinking.

I hope to learn a lot, as I’ve just started this work in philanthropy. We’re really trying to focus on public health as a public good, as a human right, from a social justice lens. And we’re working with people on the ground, grassroots organizations, to assist them and to learn from them in how these struggles should be forged.

What parts of your work feel related to anthropology?

I feel like everything is related to anthropology! In philanthropy they have this idea called “theories of change,” and we use these theories of change as a way of framing discourses that we employ to change the world, or create these open societies.

Within that whole conceptualization of a theory of change, I think about my anthropological training (which is very much ongoing) and how my training has assisted me with critiquing and enhancing these frameworks that are employed within the organization.

Can you give an example of how you make this critique?

So just last week, I was in Bogota to attend an anti-corruption convening led by Open Society. Strangely enough, I noticed that when you apply an anti-corruption framing as a theory of change, all of the countries that you then use as examples happen to be from the global south.

So, using my anthropological critical lens, I ask, “What about shifting the lens that we use to look at anti-corruption from corruption to economic justice?” This could allow us to consider, for example, how the United States has the most expensive healthcare system in the world, and that must be inherently corrupt. But if you use an anti-corruption lens, you can’t see that because the high drug prices in the US are legally instituted.

What made you interested in anthropology?

I come from a very strong legal background. My training has thus far predominantly been in law, human rights law, international law, and domestic law. When I applied for the Ph.D. program, my advisor was a sociologist. So, I was thinking about doing a more sociological project.

But once I started doing some reading on the differences between sociology and anthropology, I was inherently attracted to a more anthropological approach. Despite all of anthropology’s own issues and historical challenges, I found it to be a lens that connected me in deeper ways with what was going on in the spaces I was interested in.

What stands out as your favorite professor or class?

I really love Nicholas Limerick’s class on ethnography. He constructed the class in such a way that we learned about methods, the critique of those methods, and by having to draft an application for the Wenner-Gren fellowship. It just connected the dots for me. It allowed us to take advantage of him having been awarded the fellowship, to construct and frame my own thinking.

I didn’t get the Wenner-Gren fellowship, but the application formed the basis of my Spencer fellowship application, which I ended up getting! So I thank Nicholas Limerick for his class, which was the foundational basis for me to approach these applications very practically. But also, once I went into the field for my dissertation research, I found his research training very helpful as well.

Can you tell us about your dissertation?

It’s really about challenging the paradoxical nature of the university as an institution. The university creates the space for empowerment and emancipation, particularly for Black bodies on the margins. But at the same time, it creates spaces that reinforce some of what’s been described as oppressions that many Black students and those on the margins face within these spaces.

So it’s about the paradoxical nature of an institution, one that’s responsible for learning and helping you influence the world, but simultaneously entrenches the epistemic coloniality that’s embedded in the knowledge that we acquire through these institutions.

In some ways, it’s also a personal reflection on my own experience at universities, but more specifically on the work of a radical student movement called #RhodesMustFall, that emerged at the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 2015.

#RhodesMustFall influenced the global movement of decolonial scholars and activists at the universities of Harvard, Oxford, Princeton, and now in the Caribbean, and wanted to challenge the epistemic basis of university curricula as a way of trying to change how the university operates.

Do you have any advice for prospective students?

One of the most important decisions I made was finding an advisor, Susan Garnett Russell, who was incredibly supportive. She gave me the space to explore stuff that even she was unfamiliar with, but reined me in when I needed to be reined in.

So, developing that relationship — a really solid, trusting relationship — with my advisor was the key to a successful Ph.D. experience. I would say that’s probably even more important to me than choosing a good school. Work with someone who you can learn from, but who you can also challenge, who will be willing and open to those challenges.

This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Ruixue Peng (MA ’18) supports UN’s South-South Cooperation


Earlier this year, Ruixue Peng graduated with her master’s degree from the Anthropology & Education program at Teachers College. Now she’s working with the United Nations here in New York City, but she took some time to catch up with us. Read on for more about her work at the UN and her research at TC!

Where are you working now?

Right now I’m a consultant for this very specific office in UNICEF, called South-South Cooperation. The general idea is cooperation, without any politics, and assistance between all the developing countries in the world. So it’s like a supplement to the typical North-South coordination in the world.  It’s mutual help.

I can give you an example of what we do. Colombia wanted help with their early childhood education, and we happened to know that Cuba had very good practices in that area. We matched them up, introduced the people to each other. We build connections like this, for studies, visits, conferences, and generally sharing knowledge.

What is your personal role?

UNICEF is going to implement a new agenda, called the Young People’s Agenda. It’s focused on helping young people and adolescents in the range of 15 to 24 years, helping them with education and employment problems. My work is to strengthen the Young People’s Agenda in South-South Cooperation. So I’m doing some research trying to look for potential partnerships and funding resources, and also organizing knowledge exchange about the best practices.

What parts of your work are related to anthropology?

It’s a lot! We have lots of data sharing and knowledge exchange. For example the first assignment I did was called ‘country consultation.’ Basically we did interviews with our country offices, and we got these people talking about how their work is related to South-South Cooperation. I asked questions, took the notes, and by the end I came up with a report. It said what their good practices were, and how they could be replicated in other countries.

What was the most valuable part of your experience at TC?

I really appreciated the curiosity from all the people I met in the Anthropology & Education program. it doesn’t matter if it’s a professor or a student, everyone has this curiosity about life in general. Everyone wants to know more about the things beyond their field. Everyone I met would keep talking about every perspective on life. I think that’s really valuable.

Who was your favorite professor? What were your favorite classes?

Every class was really difficult, but also fun!  My favorite professor is Carol Benson because she’s the type of person who really lights up the whole room. She really gives you lots of assistance. My favorite class was the first one I took with her, Literacy & International Development. It was my first class in the United States, so it was very difficult at the beginning. But she was very patient and she helped me go through all the terms and how the classroom is organized here, which I think was very helpful for an international student.

Why did you decide to do the Anthropology & Education program?

I think it’s associated with my initial ideas, after I visited a village in southwest China, where they speak an indigenous language. I noticed kids who are suffering from not having access to a good education there. When sociologists are doing analysis or research, they’re just analyzing the numbers. They’re not necessarily analyzing what went wrong with the system. I want to spend more time talking to the kids, getting to know their lives. Then, that’s what I actually did for my thesis.

Can you tell us more about your master’s thesis?

My thesis was about mother tongue education in this area of southwest China called Liangshan, home to the Yi people, one of China’s ethnic minority groups. They have about a million people who speak their own indigenous language, even though Mandarin is a dominant language there. The government was really pushing them to study Mandarin first, but the dropout rate was pretty high. So they asked what went wrong and figured out that it might be language. Kids don’t understand Mandarin, the first class they have in school.

So, ten years ago, the government implemented an indigenous language program. You can see the numbers, the enrollment rate is increasing. But parents’ motivation is not to help kids keep their mother tongue. The parents want them to go to the college. On the college entrance exam, you get additional points if you’re coming from the mother tongue language program.

When I talked to local teachers and observed classrooms, I could see people really struggling. You can see some growth in the numbers over the last ten years, but teachers said they spent lots of time even for this slight improvement. After work, they have to persuade the parents to take this program. That’s why they offer the extra points for the college entrance exam, otherwise parents would all put their kids in the Mandarin programs.

Do you have any advice for students who share your interests?

It’s actually very useful to have a social science background. I’m in this division called Data Research and Policy, with lots of data people there. Every time that I mention I’m an anthropology person, they’re very surprised. They say, “We need a person like you in our division. We always analyze the data, but we need someone to tell us the narratives behind the data. Where did this data come from? How can we explain the data better?”

What research or projects are you interested in exploring for the future?

One thing I’m really interested in right now is just for my personal curiosity. I noticed lots of people my age are making progress in life, but facing anxiety in their career and relationships. They’re living by themselves, figuring out how to find a partner or a job they are passionate about. They’re often stressed and confused. Technology is really reshaping our lifestyles. The way young people right now is really different from the past. Lots of people feel they are not achieving their full potential or are falling behind. I want to see how our generation is coping with this dilemma. How will we leverage the development of technology as a force of change?


Are you a prospective student interested in doing work and research similar to Ruixue’s? Consider applying to the TC’s Anthropology & Education program!

Parts of this interview have been edited for clarity and brevity.


TC Spotlights Anthropology Student Paola Muñoz Rojas

Paola Muñoz Rojas, who is working towards her master’s degree in Anthropology & Education, is currently featured on the Teachers College website. The story highlights her powerful activism and meaningful research.

Check out an excerpt below, and read the full piece at the TC Newsroom website.

At TC, Paola is pursuing a master’s degree in Anthropology & Education. Even as she holds down three jobs to support herself and her studies, she also continues to work for broader awareness and understanding of Latinx and first-generation student issues.

“College is just so overwhelming for students — especially first-generation students — and it can be very isolating and intimidating. I want to create a support network that alleviates that additional stress for students and provides a community.”

Alumni Feature: Advocating Beyond the Academy with Dr. Jill Koyama

Jill Koyama is an Associate Professor in Educational Policy Studies and Practice at the University of Arizona. Dr. Koyama earned her PhD in Anthropology and Education from Teachers College. Her book, Making Failure Pay: For-Profit Tutoring, High-Stakes Testing, and Public Schools is based on research that she completed while a doctoral student in the Anthropology Program. Recently, we here at the “Anthro Blog” caught up with Dr. Koyama, learning a bit more about the work she completed as a student at TC, as well as her post-doctoral path and current research projects. The following feature is based on an extensive conversation I had with Dr. Koyama a few weeks ago, in which she shared some advice and insights from her time in the academy.


Before coming to Teachers College, Dr. Koyama earned her undergraduate degree in Botany. A self-described “science nerd,” she began her professional career working as an ethnobotanist for Native American tribes on the Olympic Peninsula. She then moved on to work for (and eventually direct) a “Headstart-style” program at a local community college. The students she encountered through this work inspired her to pursue a Masters in education. It was through her first graduate program that she came to Anthropology, and she points to courses and conversations with Professor Patricia Phelan as a key intellectual turning point. “Through that experience, I knew that I wanted to study more Anthropology. At the time, there were only about six programs that were teaching Anthropology and Education together; there are even fewer now.”


Looking to continue her studies, Dr. Koyama enrolled in the doctoral program at Teachers College, explaining, “I felt at the time that there were more anthropologists there doing interesting work than anywhere else.” While she initially intended to pursue questions related to the Asian American community, she was inspired to change her trajectory after completing summer field work with Greta Gibson, who, at the time, was conducting research in California on migrant Mexican students. It was this research, as well as courses completed with Lesley Bartlett and Ofelia García, that set her on a path toward a career as a “public intellectual,” a philosophy that guides her work at the University of Arizona today. Over the course of our conversation, she described mentors who encouraged her to “be engaged with the world” and pursue projects beyond gathering data.


Dr. Koyama’s current scholarship, which continues her work with migrant populations, is intimately linked to this kind of public engagement. She is currently concerned with “How people in really seemingly desperate situations…create and access and utilize social networks that are really resource rich.” Dr. Koyama relishes activity, saying she looks for “What people do and what students do, rather than what they don’t do… In the most constrained situations, people still do things. They make sense of things. They remake things.” In addition to her teaching and research responsibilities, Dr. Koyama writes opinion editorials for various media outlets as a Public Voices Fellow and serves as a volunteer ESL teacher in Tuscon, Arizona. She encourages current students to find similar ways of combining research and practice, saying, “We constantly complain that we’re never at the table, that we’re never at the decision policy making table. One of the things that I’m committed to and that I encourage for emerging scholars is to insert ourselves more in the public conversation.” She praises the University of Arizona, which she says has been immensely supportive of her dedication to advocacy beyond the academy.


Near the end of our conversation, Dr. Koyama gestured toward what she sees as some of the most exciting developments in the field of anthropology, which are informed by the way researchers are able to inhabit new multimodal versions of public space: “Rather than looking at objects or material things as kind of cultural artifacts, which is of the past, [we are now] able to see them as social actors that are making us do things. That’s where my work is going, and I think the field is much more open to that. I also just love all the new ways we look at what kind of data we can have…a lot of my data now is capturing entire threads of Facebook or Twitter or Reddit or Instagram, and it just allows for a much more visual experience, but also different kinds of data collection, which changes what we can do with time. We don’t often capture data over long periods of time, but we can capture threads for a year, you know, in a Facebook group. That kind of stuff is exciting for me.”


Jill Koyama’s book, Making Failure Pay, is available for purchase on Amazon and through the University of Chicago Press. You can access her op eds online through the Public Voices Fellowship project, or find more of her scholarly writing via ResearchGate and Google Scholar. More information on her current research and advocacy can be found through the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Practice at the University of Arizona.  


*Corinne Kentor is a first year PhD student in Anthropology and Education.


Yang’s “Cult of Mao”: A Lens for Donald Trump? (Andrew Wortham)


It is becoming quite popular, especially on the left, to compare the Trump administration to various autocratic dictatorships throughout history as a sort of warning for what to fight against.  This  kind of exercise is more galvanizing to the opposition than useful as an analytical tool.  With that important caveat, as I was reading Mayfair Yang’s chapter on the “Cult of Mao,” I could not help but indulging in the comparison, so please bear with me as I think through what Yang’s analysis of Maoist populism might tell us about our current moment.

In part, Yang’s analysis of Mao does not easily map on to contemporary politics, because she demonstrates how Mao was specific to a moment in Chinese history.  Prior to Mao, China had begun the tumultuous process of modernization, where longstanding traditional understandings and practices were rapidly being destroyed.  And yet the promise of modernity had failed to materialize; the standards of Chinese life had not dramatically improved simply because the leaders were engaged in Western science.  Instead, modernity brought China into the folds of international conflict with the invasion of Imperial Japan.  World War II brought mass suffering across the country due to violence, rape and economic destruction, but the traditional cultural practices for dealing with such loss rang hollow. “Compared to the modern military, technological, and democratic power and allure of the West, Chinese tradition seemed hopelessly backward and corrupt, it deserved an early death; however emotional attachment to tradition was difficult to break; it had offered security and stability, as opposed to the destabilizing forces of modernity” (Yang 262).  What made Mao so motivational as a leader was his ability to channel the anger and loss of the collective, while simultaneously symbolizing modernity.

Yang describes the period preceding Mao as a sort of “collective mourning” for the emotional loss of traditional Chinese culture without the collective tools for mediating or dealing with this loss.  She builds off of the work of Nicholas Abraham and Maria Tolok to identify two ways of dealing with loss. The first is in the form of “introjection,” a benign healing process that involves two oral enactments to “swallow” the loss, in the form of eating and talking with others.  The second is “incorporation,” where the body absorbs the loss instead of enacting it.  This means that “the grief that cannot be expressed builds a secret vault within the subject…when the vault is threatened, the phantom of the crypt may come to haunt the keeper of the graveyard, marking strange and incomprehensible signs to him, forcing him to perform unwonted acts, arousing unexpected feelings in him” (Yang 262).  The Maoist cult was the product of a culture that failed to introject its losses, but rather incorporated them.  The collective libido needed a place to flow, and manifested itself into a worship-like obsession with Mao.  This inspired people to defend Mao at any cost, as well as to perform and support actions they would have previously found outrageous.

I am not as convinced by the Freudian projection onto a mass collective like China, but for a moment let’s think about whether this holds any resemblance to the collective psyche of Trump voters.  I am sure that I am not the only one who did not recognize the America Trump described in his inaugural address.  The crime and destruction he articulated seem far less significant than the kind of deep societal turmoil China experience during Japanese occupation.  And yet, many Americans seem to be motivated by this great sense of loss and mourning for what America used to be. The promises of neoliberalism and globalization have not manifested into a more prosperous or egalitarian society; meanwhile many of the previous forms of “introjection,” such as Christianity, are often criticized and diminished as backwards theologies of bigotry.  Throughout the election, I was surprised that a man like Trump could gain support in places like my home state of Texas.  My experience with Texan politics was that conservative voters preferred polite, amiable “good ole boys” to the brash, confrontational “Yankee” politicians (my father’s words).  Perhaps the feeling of loss was incorporated into the conservative psyche, and the “secret vault” is arousing unexpected feelings.  Again, we have not seen the same sort of cultish behaviors evident in Mao’s time, but it remains a framework worth considering.  

*Andrew Wortham is a second year PhD student in Anthropology and Education.