By any estimation, the addition of Vidur Chopra to Teachers College’s program in Comparative & International Education is a win-win.

For Chopra, who works at the intersections of education, forced migration and citizenship studies, coming to TC has provided the opportunity to collaborate with Associate Professor of Practice Mary Mendenhall, one of the world’s leading authorities on preparing teachers to work with refugee and displaced populations.

For Mendenhall and the program, Chopra’s arrival has meant the addition of a highly accomplished scholar who has a wide range of research, policy and practice-based collaborations within humanitarian and development contexts with the United Nations (UNICEF and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and NGOs in East Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

“Vidur has been a wonderful addition,” says Mendenhall. “He immediately raises our game as he joins ongoing research studies and brings ideas for new initiatives.” Chopra and Mendenhall are co-leading a brand-new project with the LEGO Foundation on helping teachers in refugee settings integrate play-based approaches in support of students’ academic and social-emotional well-being.

Goldberg's gift, which the College received upon his death in 2017, establishes TC as a leader in one of the hottest research areas in both health and education: child and adolescent trauma. 

Chopra, who defines his work through the lens of wellbeing, is one of about 10 recipients of the Dr. Bruce Goldberg Postdoctoral Fellowships at TC. The Goldberg Fellows positions are being funded through a $2.5 million bequest by the late alumnus Bruce Goldberg (Ed.D. ’76, M.A. ’75), who died in 2017. Little is known about Goldberg, beyond the fact that he was a public school teacher in Brooklyn – but his name could loom large for many years to come, both at Teachers College and beyond, because his gift, which the College received upon his death in 2017, immediately establishes TC as a leader in one of the hottest research areas in both health and education: child and adolescent trauma, which explores young people’s stress reactions and other common responses to traumas such as gun violence, homelessness, and the loss of loved ones through death, forced migration or drug addiction. 

This gift is a real game-changer. It amplifies a really cool interdisciplinary focus at TC and adds a nice layer in how we prepare our students for research careers. And seeing a new group of scholars trained at TC in this important field will help people understand our value as a research institution.

— TC Provost Stephanie J. Rowley

“This gift is a real game-changer in a lot of ways,” says TC Provost Stephanie J. Rowley. “It amplifies a really cool interdisciplinary focus at TC that includes not only people working in psychology, but also in our departments of Mathematics, Science & TechnologyBiobehavioral Sciences and Arts & Humanities.”  And Mendenhall adds that the Department of International & Transcultural Studies, in which her program is based, will have benefited from 3 Goldberg Postdoctoral Fellows by next year — Dr. Vidur Chopra (who is in his 2nd year now), Dr. Raksha Vasudevan who is currently working with Associate Professor Oren Pizmony-Levy and his colleagues in the Center for Sustainable Futures, and a future fellow who will be hired to work with Associate Professor Garnett Russell.   

Rowley believes the Goldberg Fellowships are important on two counts. First, they are prompting faculty members who work with postdoctoral fellows to reexamine their own work.

GOLDBERG VARIATION Vidur Chopra and Elizabeth Taveras Rivera are part of a group of Goldberg Postdoctoral Fellows at TC who represent a broad range of interests and fields. (Photos: TC Archives)

For example, Goldberg Postdoctoral Fellow Elizabeth Taveras Rivera has been working Carmen Martínez-Roldán, Associate Professor of Bicultural/Bilingual Education, on studying the impact of school closings in Puerto Rico, an existing problem that grew worse in the aftermath of the more recent hurricanes that have battered the island.

“Elizabeth is contributing an important aspect to the study by connecting the emotional impact of the closing of schools for one Black community with the larger problem of the closing of schools in Puerto Rico as tied to poverty,” Martínez-Roldán says. “She has accessed demographic information and socioeconomic indicators by municipalities in Puerto Rico, situating the research project within the macro context of the socioeconomic conditions of communities in the island in relationship to the closing of schools. Through this work and through her interest in metaphors, she has expanded our initial analysis, which focused on literacy learning. We plan on presenting the analysis conducted this semester, titled ‘Exploring the Intersection of Race and Education in the Closure of Schools in Puerto Rico: A Black Community’s Saberes Ancestrales as Activism,’ at the Ethnography in Education Forum in February.”

More broadly, Rowley believes that simply having a postdoctoral fellow program of this kind at TC will enhance preparation of future scholars and burnish the College’s reputation.

“Education has been late to the game in terms of postdocs,” Rowley says. “The natural sciences have them because there’s a recognition that people need an extended clock to build their skills. So this adds a nice layer in how we prepare our students for research careers. And seeing a new group of scholars trained at TC in this important field will help people understand our value as a research institution.”

Chopra, for one, has been a highly visible presence during his time at TC.

In October, under the auspices of the Columbia Global Centers, he organized and moderated an online panel on forced migration, which included Mendenhall and Lena Verdeli, Associate Professor of Psychology & Education and Director of TC’s Global Mental Health Lab. [Read about and watch the panel discussion moderated by Chopra.]

In early November, he delivered a talk on his own work, “Delivering on the Promise of Refugee Education, as part of the Department of International & Transcultural Studies’ Workshop series.

Focusing on the plight of Syrian youth in Lebanon, which, as a result of the war in Syria, now has the world’s highest per capital proportion of refugees, Chopra spoke about the issue of “future making” in refugee education — and more specifically, how “the purposes and goals of education are inextricably linked with the futures we imagine for children and young people universally.”

In particular, he noted, the ninth-grade year in Lebanon is critically important, because it is the time when youth are sorted into paths that are either geared to higher education, to vocational careers, or no education at all. Yet refugee youth, who are taught in the same public schools as Lebanese students but are segregated, taught at different times and with a sharply curtailed curriculum, lack the same opportunities as their Lebanese peers.

In accordance with conventional global refugee policy, these youth would have three humanitarian options: returning to their countries of origin or resettling in a new country, both of which could confer legal status — or, more commonly, simply remaining in limbo in the current host country, which confers no rights at all. The question for public educators, Chopra says, is what and how to teach given their refugee students’ “opaque and uncertain futures.” 

“In recent work with colleagues, we try to understand a fourth future — transnationalism, or forging and maintaining attachments to multiple places and societies,” he said. He went on to outline the ways educators can adjust their instruction, acknowledge refugee students’ multiple attachments and establish supportive relationships to provide some semblance of certainty. 

Clearly, Chopra, Rivera and their fellow Fellows represent widely diverse areas of inquiry — but given the common thread that unites them, Rowley has hopes for bringing them all together for some kind of event during the remainder of the academic year. “This is truly one of the most exciting new developments at TC,” she says. “And it’s also a great way to demonstrate how philanthropy can positively shape an institution.”