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Educating Under Fire

Lots of teachers say they work in the trenches. Rebecca Winthrop really does.

TC President Arthur Levine often talks about repairing the world through education. For Rebecca Winthrop, a doctoral candidate in the Philosophy and Education Department, that's a literal injunction.  

When Winthrop is not studying at TC, she's an Education Technical Advisor for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), an organization that works in refugee communities in Afghanistan, the Sudan and 24 other war-torn countries. The group has also helped out during natural disasters such as this past winter's tsunami in Asia.

"In crisis, lives are turned upside down," says Winthrop, who adapts IRC's strategic policy to the diverse cultures in which the organization operates. "With IRC, we set up a safe space and monitor children's well-being and health. Structured, normalizing activity is crucial in the early stages of crisis."

A major part of that is providing education, and that effort, too, falls under Winthrop. "We provide schooling for refugees to ensure that generations of children will not miss out on education," she says. "This is the first time many of these kids have ever been in a classroom, and some are withdrawn, sad or crying. In addition to the curriculum, they are learning how to behave in class -and how to survive in the presence of land mines. We help teachers to cope with the situation and to learn child development skills."

Winthrop, who grew up on the West Coast, says her exposure to social justice issues started with her parents, anthropologists who worked with local ethnic communities. It was her own studies in Central America, however, that inspired her to help people internationally. "I saw how different the standard of living is outside of the United States," she says. "The level of human rights abuse is high, especially for displaced people."

Why study at TC as well? "The doctoral program here lets me think reflectively about work and practice," says Winthrop, who also has a master's degree from Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. "After I receive my degree, I will use what I have learned to continue helping people in displaced communities."

Published Friday, Apr. 29, 2005