Teachers College’s 12th Academic Festival was also its first virtual one — a format that enabled the College to spread out programming over nearly a week’s time. In addition to the sessions we feature and link to in our overview story about Academic Festival, this year’s event included programming that ranged from a discussion of college sports and social justice to snapshots of how the COVID pandemic is playing out in nations around the world. TC also honored a group of distinguished alumni and offered a heartfelt thank you to donors who have stepped up during the pandemic.  

Alumni Talk Activism

The inaugural segment of Alumni Voices, a new podcast series featuring TC alumni, explored activism through the prisms of cultural relevance, personal conviction, educational leadership and the 21st-century legacy of a 20th-century sharecropper.

Moderated by Rosella Garcia, Senior Director of Alumni Relations, the series’ first installment, titled “A Call to Action,” featured Associate Professor of Educational Leadership Sonya Douglass Horsford; Charo Uceda (M.A. ’08), the Co-founder and Chief Academic Director of the Uceda School network, which teaches English as a second language; Mariana Casellato, a master’s student in TC’s International Education Development; and Krystal Hardy Allen, a doctoral student in the College’s K-12 Urban Education Leadership program.

Alumni Voices Podcast | Ep. 1 - A Call to Action

Horsford, the Founding Director of TC’s Black Education Research Collective and Co-Director of the College’s Urban Education Leaders Program, called for confronting “tough truths around racism and the history of the country.”

“The question becomes, for those who call themselves leaders, ‘What is our responsibility?’” she said. “Who needs to be thinking about these things on a macro scale?’ And what role can each of us play to advance an agenda that is inclusive and creates the types of educational communities that I believe we are capable of creating?” 

Uceda (M.A. ’08), who created TC’s Uceda Lecture on Women’s Empowerment, said that the spirit of activism and change has to come from within.

“There is so much information in this world that it’s easy to lose focus,” she said. “The first thing I do is to look inward before looking outside to know what justice means to me. There has to be a lifetime commitment.”   

Casellato, a Zankel Fellow and master’s candidate in the International & Comparative Education program, said it was imperative that activists “value local perspectives” in the development of policies to improve healthcare and education in foreign communities.

Allen spoke movingly of her grandmother, who picked cotton as a child, defiantly sipped water from fountains marked “white only,” was struck by a brick while defending her right to vote in Selma, and lived long enough to see a Black man become president of the United States.

“I take a lot of hope from her,” said Allen, a former teacher and principal who leads a New Orleans-based educational consulting firm. “It’s easy to become cynical, it’s easy to become bitter, it’s easy to become hopeless and to believe that some things just aren’t possible. But change is happening. Don’t lose faith in the efforts we push toward day-to-day”

Taking Hollywood to School

Academia and entertainment have much to learn from one another. That was a key takeaway from “Intersecting Identities: Historical Context and the Development of Personal Narrative Identity,” a conversation between TC Associate Professor of English Education Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz and Fanshen Cox (M.A. ’97), award-winning actor, producer and educator.

“Stories matter,” said Sealey-Ruiz, author of Love from the Vortex and other Poems (Kaleidoscope Vibrations, 2020) — a point Cox illustrated by performing a monologue from “One Drop of Love,” her one-woman show about her own complex racial identity. Then Cox spoke about her work advising Pearl Street Films, the production company created by stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, on inclusiveness and equality.

Intersecting Identities: Historical Context and the Development of Personal Narrative and Identity

“Entertainment work is not very deep,” she said. “But being back at TC reminds me of how much we marry scholastic work with mainstream representations of ourselves. Academic work can get mired in terminology that is not acceptable to larger audiences. But Hollywood is extremely limited in terms of not paying attention to scholars and this kind of work.”

Making College Sports an Arena for Social Justice

Big-name professional athletes are increasingly outspoken on political and social issues — but some of the most substantive discussions may be occurring on the college level.

Take the NCAA’s Big East Conference, where Commissioner Val Ackerman has instituted measures ranging from a partnership of minority men’s assistant basketball coaches to the Black Lives Matter patches that will adorn players’ uniforms during the 2020-21 basketball season.

TC Talks | Championing Excellence By Embracing A Culture Of DE&I by Val Ackerman

“This is the power of one,” said Ackerman, who was the founding commissioner of the WNBA, and whose daughter Sally, is a student in TC’s Social-Organizational Psychology program. “What can we do when we wake up every day to live a life of respect, tolerance and find ways to lift up others, particularly those who don’t have the privileges that we have?”

Self-Expectations During COVID: Setting a Different Bar

Nine months into the COVID pandemic, TC Professor of Clinical Psychology Doug Mennin believes the only certainty may be that there’s no right answer for “how to respond to this uncertainty.” 

If nothing else, agreed Mennin and psychologist Dale Atkins (M.A. ’72) in a conversation titled “Coping with Crises: Anxiety & Depression During Covid-19 and Beyond,” that reality argues for being less hard on ourselves.

Coping with Crises: Anxiety & Depression during COVID-19 and Beyond

“This is a first-time experience for everyone,” said Atkins, the media personality and author known as Dr. Dale, who says she’s shifted from crisis counseling to advocating for patience and self-forgiveness in grappling with difficult decisions. “We need to find kindness and empathy for ourselves so that when we try something new and fall on our face, the voice in our head is not a critical, shaming voice, but a voice that says, ‘Hey, you’ve never done this before – let’s keep trying.’ It’s what I like to call a personal cheerleader.”

Miracle on 34th Street: Changing the Culture at MSG

Five years ago, arriving at Madison Square Garden Entertainment Corporation as the new Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer, Sandra Kapell (M.A. ’93) found a classic good news-bad news scenario.

The good news, said Kapell in a talk titled “Plan for Your People First,” was an aggressive plan to revolutionize the entertainment industry and world-class assets that included the Garden (home to the Knicks basketball and Rangers hockey teams), Radio City Music Hall, the Beacon Theater and Chicago’s Chicago Theater. There was also MSG’s storied 141-year history.

The bad news was that, over the past seven years, seven previous heads of human resources had been defeated by a culture that also verged on the historic.

TC Talks | Plan for Your People First by Sandra Kapell

MSG had no compensation program tied to performance. Seasonal turnover in some jobs exceeded 100 percent. The payroll system wasn’t automated, leading to frequent mistakes. In a confidential survey, most employees declined to recommend MSG as an employer.

Kapell says her TC policy studies helped her launch a multi-year effort aimed at cultural change: “I learned to think in a real-world way about solving problems.” Today, management seeks out employee feedback. The company has invested heavily in technology. Organizational goals are tied to people’s jobs and offer pathways for career advancement. MSG still aims to improve its diversity -- but compared with five years ago, the company is operating in another league: “Our employees have really risen to the occasion.” 

A Community Commiserates: Six TC alumni from around the world share local updates on the pandemic

In April, when Rosella Garcia, TC’s Senior Director of Alumni Relations, met on Zoom with alumni from five nations, COVID had infected 780,000 people worldwide, with 37,500 deaths. When the panel reconvened in late September, those numbers stood at 31.7 million and 970,000. They were higher still when the panel’s discussion aired during Academic Festival. 

But as described by the panelists, the pandemic’s impact has varied widely.

International Alumni Perspectives on COVID

In China, Kevin Jian (M.A. ’15), Facility Manager for Western International School of Shanghai (WISS), said life was “like before COVID,” with people congregating sans masks and schools fully open. 

In contrast, Brazil stands as a textbook case of doing “things you shouldn’t do in a pandemic,” said Leticia Lyle (M.A. ’11), Co-Founder and Chief Education Officer at the São Paulo-based learning organization Camino Education. The nation has repeatedly changed health and education ministers and failed to articulate a coordinated preventive strategy, Lyle said, and Brazil’s students have been out of school longer than those of any other country. 

After a summer of respite in Italy, “the bell curve went up in August” when people returned from vacations, said Vasily Popov (M.A. ’95), who heads Strategic Planning at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome. With schools now open, Popov fears the numbers will keep climbing — and Italy has announced plans to seal off six regions. 

South Korea, too, is enduring “a second attack,” said Joohee Son (Ed.D. ’13), Founding Director of the Center for Education and Technology in Seoul. Things could be even tougher this time: “The government has given us stronger rules because we can’t trace where infections were coming from — and that makes people so scared.”

In San Francisco, where residents have weathered both the pandemic and the surrounding wildfires, schools continue to operate remotely and “a lot of us are just staying home,” reported Johanna Brody (M.A. ’11), Supervisor at the Bay Area Teacher Training Institute. Brody, who says TC taught her to focus “not only on what you’re learning but also the learning process,” is trying to help teachers “understand what students are going through and how it’s different for them.” 

Jeffrey Putman (Ed.D. ’11, M.Ed. ’98. M.A.  ’97) praised New Yorker City residents for their safety compliance, citing the city’s low infection rate. But Putman, Vice President for Academic & Student Affairs at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University, said the Gotham’s corporate employees have yet to return, hurting other industries.

Acknowledging the grimness of these reports, Lyles found hope in TC’s global community: “I feel nourished. As an administrator in education, this has contributed so much to my practice.”

Honoring TC’s Own

Honored at Academic Festival, TC’s 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award recipients were Deborah Antoine (Ed.D. ’91), Chief Executive Officer of the Women’s Sports Foundation, psychologist and media personality “Dr. Dale” Atkins (M.A. ’72), David Gómez (M.A. ’82), former President of New York City’s Hostos Community College, and Preston Green III (Ed.D. ’95), John and Maria Neag Professor of Urban Education and Professor of Educational Leadership and Law at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education. Early Career Award recipients were K-12 New York City mathematics teacher Benjamin Dickman (Ph.D. ’14) and Radhika Iyengar (Ph.D. ’11), Education Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The Alumni Award for Outstanding Service, honoring contributions to TC, went to pioneering education technology visionary Jinny Goldstein (M.A. ’93) and nurse executive and educator Debra Heinrich (M.Ed. ’84). [Watch a video about the award recipients.] 

Cheers to Donors — and Snapshots of Their Dollars at Work

At Academic Festival 2020, Provost Stephanie J. Rowley thanked members of the College’s John Dewey Circle and Maxine Greene Society and contributors to the TC Annual Fund for providing “an elixir guaranteed to infuse our faculty and students with innovation, enthusiasm and confidence.”

Rowley described how two faculty members supported by donors have responded to the pandemic.

Cheers to You | A Celebration of TC Fund Donors & Student Scholars

Catherine Crowley, Director of TC’s program in Communications Sciences & Disorders, has long brought students to developing nations to conduct speech therapy with children who have had cleft palate surgery. The pandemic scotched this year’s trip — but teaching remotely, Crowley enabled her students to develop requisite skills and deliver real-time therapy to children in Colombia via Zoom.

Detra Price-Dennis, Associate Professor of Education, created a digital program through which youngsters queried health professionals. With city officials, she co-led a virtual town hall panel on public education. And through the National Council of Teachers of English, she led workshops for teachers worldwide. 

Rowley also introduced four TC master’s degree students supported by the TC Annual Fund.

Analissa Calvin (Elementary Inclusive Education) said TC has introduced her to “windows and mirrors” — the concept that “children need to be able to see through into other people’s expenses, but also see themselves reflected in their education.”

DJ Jeffries (Adult Learning & Leadership) paid tribute to a grandmother who “worked three jobs so that we could have a chance.” He hopes to improve organizations’ representation and treatment of marginalized employees. 

Julian David-Drori (Neuroscience & Education) shared that he has twin younger brothers with autism spectrum disorder and that he, too, has neurodevelopmental disabilities. He hopes to change education so others with these issues “succeed rather than just struggle through.” 

Mariana Casellato (International Education Development) is interning at Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity, producing podcasts on the intersection of colonialism and COVID.

Echoing her fellow students, Casellato offered thanks for “the financial aid that gives me the support to be here at the College.”