Srishti Sardana still wonders at her long-ago encounter with female sex workers on a train platform in Madras.

The women spoke Hindi, her home province’s language. Sardana, now a Teachers College doctoral student in Global Mental Health, was 16, pursuing training for a medical career she didn’t perhaps want.

Her parents were middle class, but their families had been uprooted by the 1947 partitioning of India and Pakistan.

“That influenced how I thought,” she recalls. “About diversity, disparity, difference.” Sardana spoke to the sex workers and became their ally for years to come. She mothered and tutored their children. The women “honored my inclusion. And they protected me — from the mafia, the police, epidemic disease.”

Srishti brings iron self-discipline, high intelligence, creativity, knowledge in psychosocial support, and a visceral understanding of different cultures. She is our rock.

— Lena Verdeli, Associate Professor of Psychology & Education

After a police raid in which Sardana was beaten and “investigated in not very respectful ways,” she left, because “I could.” But a sense of unfinished business haunted her.

“Many of those women suffered from psychological distress, HIV,” she says. “Some are out of work. Many are dead.”

Flash forward some years. Sardana, now a corrections officer for juvenile sex offenders, was laboring to reform the New Delhi police force from within. She read about TC’s Lena Verdeli, a global mental health expert helping refugees and displaced populations. “She saw hope amid adversity,” Sardana recalls. “And I thought, I’m hopeless and disillusioned, I need to go see her.”

At TC, Sardana conducted the first systematic mental health evaluation of sex workers in India. She has worked with Verdeli’s Global Mental Health Lab in countries worldwide. “Srishti brings iron self-discipline, high intelligence, creativity, knowledge in psychosocial support, and a visceral understanding of cultures,” Verdeli says. “She is our rock.”

In Lebanon, the lab is helping the mental health system incorporate Verdeli’s signature treatment, group interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT), to treat millions of Syrian refugees. Sardana has seen “people who had once forgotten celebration making plans for their children’s weddings.” And she has observed Verdeli go into the field and say, "We will be guided by you." “Her first point of contact is not training and teaching skills, but rather the vulnerability to say, ‘we don’t know a lot, and we need to learn, with everyone’s help.’”

Verdeli focuses on “local idioms of suffering” — how, say, a displaced Syrian woman experiences depression versus a Lebanese man. In Bangladesh, Sardana will be adapting novel tools to understand how Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are coping — and how IPT changes their support networks.

Ultimately, Sardana plans to help those on the margins of society. “At TC, I’ve learned not to give up. I create an outcome, and the whole institution unites to bring it to the fore. And I represent a million women. Because this isn’t a one-person job. It takes an army, and that is TC.”