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Office of International Affairs
Caitlin Thomas, Department of International & Transcultural Studies
I thought we could start off by you telling me a little bit about yourself—where are you from? What are you studying and why did you choose TC?
I grew up in Fairfax Station, Virginia, about 45 minutes outside of DC. I received my BA from Virginia Tech in International Studies with a Business focus and a Spanish minor. After graduation, I applied for Peace Corps service and waited about 12 months to depart for Mongolia as an English Education and Community Development volunteer. During my waiting period, I was working in Fairfax County Public Schools and teaching English to adult learners. In service, I was placed in the most western province of Mongolia in a secondary school. I was teaching English to grades 5th to 11th, hosting English clubs, overseeing English and sports competitions, and working with the Disability Center raising awareness about students with disabilities. From this experience, I realized the value of a quality education and the importance of equitable access to that education.
I stayed three years in that role as a volunteer, serving one year longer as I fell in love with my school and community. After returning to the US, I worked for Peace Corps Headquarters on a legal team for two years, and realized my desire to get back into the field of education was strong. I learned about the International and Comparative Education (ICE) program at Teachers College from a former volunteer and really saw my future aligning with this program. After coming to visit the program and learning more about the school, I knew that this was the right place for me. I am currently in the Comparative and International Education (CIE) program, focusing on LGBTI and gender-related issues in schools. I hope to continue to work with LGBTI youth, either as a researcher or as a practitioner, working in NYC or DC schools.
Can you discuss the kind of research/work you did before you attended TC? Did these experiences impact your career/research goals/decision to attend TC?
During my Peace Corps service, I was an English teacher in a secondary school for three years in Mongolia. Upon returning, I started working at Peace Corps Headquarters in a legal administrative role. My experience as a volunteer and employee of Peace Corps shaped my decision to attend a program with an international and comparative focus to education. Speaking with former volunteers and colleagues who attended similar programs, I was informed and drawn to the ICE program at Teachers College.
Tell me about the research you are doing now in Mongolia.
Currently, I am doing research on the LGBTI climate in Mongolian Schools by conducting an online quantitative study of Mongolian LGBTI youth aged 13-20 to further understand the issues they face on a daily basis and to shed light on how to make more inclusive classroom environments. The survey was distributed through the LGBTI Centre of Mongolia’s Facebook page [and] 193 students have taken the survey so far. Through this research, I plan to document firstly, the level of support, resources, and visibility for LGBTI youth in Mongolia. Secondly, I intend to examine ways that school environments have made safe and inclusive environments [and how we can] share and replicate these experiences. Specifically, I will look for supportive teachers and staff, access to resources that included LGBTI-related topics, school anti-discrimination policies, and school organizations that support LGBTI youth. With an idea that more supportive schools create a more desirable environment for youth to be a part of, I will test whether supportive resources are correlated with attendance, involvement in school activities, and higher grades.
What motivated or sparked your interest in the LGBTI climate in Mongolian Schools?
As a member of the LGBTI community, I always felt that high school was not a safe place for [me] or others who identified similarly. From homophobia and bullying, to lack of support from the school administration and lack of representation in curriculum, I was unable to be my true authentic self in high school. As I became more aware of my identity, I knew I wanted to give back to younger LGBTI youth and contribute to creating more inclusive school environments, so students could feel safer in being themselves from an early age. After I become aware that my advisor, Dr. Oren Pizmony-Levy, was doing research in the LGBTI climate in schools internationally, I immediately knew I wanted to contribute to this work.
The work that you’re doing is in a pretty remote area of the world – how has this impacted your research?
While Mongolia isn’t on the radar for most folks, it actually has a fairly modern capital, Ulaanbaatar, and has been open and inviting to foreigners and investors since it became a democracy in 1990. Since I lived there for three years, I know my way around the city, I have a deeper cultural understanding of the society, and know how to get in contact with folks in all walks of life there. Through Facebook, we have been able to gather a lot of respondents to the survey and through events at the LGBT Centre there, we have been able to promote it. So, this hasn’t impacted my work too much.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
Looking forward, I see myself working in the public or non-profit sector for a few years focused on LGBTI research or working directly with LGBTI youth. After, I would like to work with the Department of Education or Peace Corps again, in a training and development role specific to gender and LGBTI related educational issues. I am eager to get abroad again in some capacity, so perhaps down the road I will begin the process of becoming a foreign service officer; or look for NGOs and non-profit organizations globally that are focusing on LGBTI youth. However, I am always open to whatever doors may open, so only time will tell.
Is there something that I haven’t touched on that you’d like to share?
Research in this field is extremely important, and I am excited and humbled to be a part of it. I look forward to contributing to creating more inclusive and just school environments for youth around the world.
By: Tanwaporn Watanaporn
Editor: Blessing Nuga
Selma Zaki is a second-year master’s candidate in Psychological Counseling in the Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology. This past year, Selma and three other TC students—Charlotte Hamm, Nour Salem, and Lai la Salam—founded an initiative called In Fluency to explore the intersection of psychology and politics and examine the role of mental health professionals and other change agents within that intersection. On April 21st, In Fluency hosted their first event “Psychology Beyond Borders: Lessons from Sudan, Kashmir, Palestine, and Burma.” Co-sponsored by the Office of International Affairs (OIA), the panel featured a diverse cast of mental health experts and activists sharing their narratives about the extent to which the current political situation in their respective countries impacts citizens’ mental health.
In Fluency was born out of both a feeling of disconnect and a need to reconnect—to oneself, to the TC community, and to the outside world. For Selma, born in America and raised by Iraqi-Lebanese-Palestinian parents in Lebanon, this disconnect began when she moved to the United States to obtain her master’s degree. Like many newly matriculated students, upon arriving at TC, Selma experienced fear and a feeling of being out of place. Although she holds an American passport, she grew up in Lebanon so she felt like an international student, which ultimately led to feelings of isolation. “I felt frustrated—and I know a lot of people feel frustrated—but I was frustrated for a year and I’m usually someone who tries to translate that frustration into something, and I think that’s what I tried to do with In Fluency.”
It was these shared feelings of frustration and disconnection that brought Selma and the other co-founders of In Fluency together. “We wanted a name that was catchy and that captured the idea of understanding different cultures. […] When you’re fluent in a language, you can begin to understand the culture, so that’s where the name came from. When you’re fluent, you can influence, but only after you understand it.” Selma describes In Fluency as a space for understanding psychology on two levels—the individual and the big picture. In Fluency’s goal is to examine what is happening in other countries and what an individual can do to respond. “We’re talking about countries like Palestine, Kashmir, and Myanmar, where it’s not very easy to do anything.”
As she looks toward the future and her impending graduation in December 2017, Selma is working through the struggle that she says many international students face—does she invest herself in In Fluency at TC or does she redirect her attention back home? One thing that may sway her is whether or not In Fluency can initiate changes in the culture of the Psychology Counseling Program here at TC.
By: Melanie Cooke
Editors: Heidi Liu Banerjee & Blessing Nuga
Michelle YoungHwa Chang, M.S., Ed.M, is a second-year doctoral candidate studying under the supervision of Dr. Erika Levy in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. Their research team is piloting a treatment program for children with Cerebral Palsy that have developed dysarthria, difficult or unclear articulation of speech that is otherwise linguistically normal. Michelle is in the process of developing her thesis to expand this treatment to bilingual children.