Born and raised in Germany, doctoral candidate Viola Huang found a second home in New York City and the rigorous academic environment of Teachers College’s History and Education program. Viola has broad and rich teaching experiences, which have shaped who she is today and the direction in which she heads. From teaching college students in literature and linguistics and working on an anti-racist education project, to teaching German and dance, Viola has done it all. What’s more, in focusing her Ph.D. studies on the Black Power Movement in Harlem, Viola has found a way to combine her love of teaching and historical research;  she has brought that powerful combination with her back to her home country as she continues her studies.

Although the desire to study history was not originally in her plans, the dream of becoming a teacher was always in the cards. “I wanted to become a teacher from early on, but I hated history when I was in school because of the way it was taught at school.” As she began delving into the world of education, Viola came to the realization that history was, in fact, vital to improving the world of education. “I tried to understand it and look into alternative approaches, and I realized that in order to understand the education system—and in order to change it—I needed to know its history and why it is the way it is. That’s why I started to actually love history.”

As she continued in her studies, she became disillusioned by the same education system that intrigued her. “When I started my undergraduate degree, I was sure I wanted to become a high school teacher, but then there was all this frustration.” It was her desire to make a difference - to usher in change for the better - that strengthened her inclination toward studying history. “I realized that history is pretty much the basis for me to do everything else. History is not just simply about the past; it’s also about the present and the future. In order to understand what’s going on today, I need to understand what’s happened in the past. I feel like no matter what I do or teach today, history is the basis for that.”

While pursuing her undergraduate studies, Viola didn’t just discover that the education system was far from perfect, she decided to do something about it. Viola explains her career path, saying, “I needed to learn more in order to become a better teacher.” She went on to receive the equivalent of a master’s degree in teaching in Germany, but didn’t stop there. “I had the chance to teach on a college level, and I realized I actually really enjoyed teaching college students, so that’s why I decided to do my Ph.D. I also really love doing research. The combination of doing research and teaching is just perfect for me.”

As her appetite was whetted for academia, Viola discovered in herself an interest in uncovering the history and voices that have been muffled over time. “I became more and more interested in topics that revolve around race, education, human rights, justice, social movements, and community activism, particularly in the US. While there are really good programs in American Studies in Germany and Europe, for me personally, it was crucial to actually be in the US in order to learn about the issues from a US American perspective. That’s how I decided to go to NYC and TC.”

After moving to NYC, Viola’s interests and coursework led her down the path of her current dissertation topic. “My research is on Black Power schools in Harlem between 1960 and 1980. Between 1960 and 1980, Harlem saw a number of schools emerge out of the Black Power Movement, and these schools are very different in terms of purpose, methodology, ideology, and even curricula, but they each have an origin within the Black Power Movement.”

Viola’s passion is evident in her expression as she continues to explain the origins of this scholarly interest, as well as her stance on the matter.  “I grew up in a relatively small city in Germany, and I was pretty much the only person with immigrant background in my school. Because of that, I try to listen very carefully, rather than talk a lot, and I try to include voices that are usually not heard. My personal experiences have a huge impact on my teaching.”  Viola shares what that looks like in her research, saying, “My argument is that these schools in many ways were another response to the fight over establishing quality education that went beyond integration and community-controlled public schools, and these schools have tended to prepare students, and subsequently the community, to become self-sufficient, self-reliant and proud of their heritage. In this case, activists tried to achieve these goals outside of the public school system rather than from within it.”

In order to uncover much of the history of the Black Power schools in Harlem, Viola turned to the archives. As she immersed herself in archives and past research, Viola shares how she found her second home in NYC. “The more I got in touch with academia in North America, the more I was drawn to it, especially because my scholarly interests developed further into the direction that was best served by North America, as opposed to Europe.”

In regards to her experience at Teachers College, Viola raves about her classmates, professors, and the connections she had access to because of TC. “My advisers and my fellow students, they’re all so different and all so brilliant. It was such a rich experience to get to know them in and outside of class. I think people are what was most important at TC. Doing archival work in New York state, both at Columbia University and the Schomburg center, was also an amazing experience. It’s just amazing to be in NYC and have the flexibility to go to the archives whenever you want.”

Viola currently teaches information and media literacy in the History Education and American Studies Programs at the University of Passau in Germany. At first, she was hesitant about combining parts of her Black Power Movement research with the information and media literacy curricula, as the topic is not often addressed in Germany.  Initially unsure of how her students would respond, Viola was pleasantly surprised with her students’—all future or current teachers—interest in the subject. “All my students so far are really excited about the topic and are really engaged, wanting to know more. As the final project, they have to create a digital product. They have to do a lesson plan, create a website or podcast, make a video or something like that. Most of them decide to do something that they can use later on in school when they are teaching. Many have created lesson plans which include the Black Power Movement, and some of them are primary school teachers. I’m really excited that they’re going to spread the history of the Black Power Movement in primary schools in Germany.”

Viola gets so excited about the reactions of her students because “that’s one of the most important things for me, sharing the story that we don’t really know much about, the part of history that is just not present or represented in school history books, in the US nor in Germany.”