Listening to Lives from Around the World | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Listening to Lives from Around the World

Jondou Chen is leading a project to document the oral histories of immigrant students

“A huge part of being an immigrant and coming from an immigrant culture is the passing of oral traditions. So a student tells the story of his mom telling him the story of what it was like to grow up in China during World War II, and she tells it to him while they’re flying to the U.S. And it brings tears to both their eyes, because he realizes why he’s coming.” • Jondou Chen, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in developmental psychology, is describing a student he interviewed at one of New York City’s six schools for recent immigrants between the ages of 18 and 25 who are working to complete their high school degrees. The interviews—conducted in Mandarin, Spanish, French, Haitian Creole, Urdu, Bangla, Gujarti and Arabic, as well as in English, are part of a massive project by TC’s Student Press Initiative through which students at five of the six schools are writing personal histories based on their interviews with SPI staff. The histories will be published in an anthology later this year, titled Speaking Worlds: Oral Histories from GED-Plus, and the students will give a public reading at TC’s Cowin Center in late May. • “In a sense, our students might be judged as cognitively delayed because they haven’t yet received a high school diploma and are above the age one is supposed to receive it,” says Chen, who is co-leading the project with Morse Center coordinator Courtney Brown. “But they have incredibly rich life histories and many of them are deeply reflective people, so why not take what’s seen as a deficiency and turn it into a strength?” • Chen seems born to lead this particular project. He is the son of two students from Taiwan who made the decision to stay on in the United States when the political situation at home became untenable. • “I didn’t realize the gravity of that until I came to TC,” he says. “We have such a rich international community here. It made me realize the weight on my parents as they made that decision 30 years ago.” • He also has served previously as director of programs for a youth center in San Diego, a teacher, and the director of a homeless shelter in Cambridge, Massachusetts. • “Pretty much my whole professional life has been based on listening and responding to and appreciating stories,” he says. • All of which has given him an ability to see people in all their dimensions. “I have a student who learned literacy by going to a Muslim Holy School and reading the Koran, and by reading Al Jazeera at the shop he worked in,” he says. “He came here hoping for a better life. He’s angry about the news, yet in his day-to-day interactions with students all over the world, you couldn’t find a better example of a peacemaker.”

Published Wednesday, May. 19, 2010


More Stories