Where Are They Now: Chhaya Werner '14

In this series, the Novogratz Bridge Year Program reconnects with past participants to see where life has taken them after Princeton.  In this installment, we check-in with Chhaya Werner ‘14.  In 2009-2010, Chhaya traveled with Bridge Year to Varanasi, India, where she collaborated with NIRMAN, an organization that aims to provide inclusive and innovative learning experiences for people of all ages and backgrounds.

The following includes excerpts from their conversation:

Matt Lynn (ML): Hey Chhaya! Thanks for chatting with me. What are you up to these days?

Chhaya Werner (CW): Hi Matt, it is nice to meet you. I’m currently living in Washington state where I am a post-doc researcher in ecology, and am about to begin a teaching position at Southern Oregon University in the fall.

ML: Great! To kick things off, tell me a little more about your Bridge Year.

Chhaya Werner at SouthPoint School

photo courtesy of Chhaya Werner

CW: Well, I was in the first cohort of Bridge Year students, and went to Varanasi, India in 2009. I worked at NIRMAN at a school called Southpoint, and I was teaching. They had a campus in the city, and one outside of the city, which is where I was. Originally, I was supposed to be helping an existing teacher, and supporting creative science teaching, and then a few teachers at the remote campus left their jobs.  I started teaching a lot more and taught English and science. The campus I was teaching at was a combined class, so my morning class was first through fourth grade all together and the afternoon was fifth through seventh. I had had experiences teaching in summer camps, but this was a big learning curve.

Some of my students were very driven, and really had a lot of English experience and were writing full essays, and some of them were still learning to read and write, so it was a range in ages as well as language levels. Additionally, I had only been taking Hindi classes for a month, so there was a language barrier on my end as well. There were many amazing parts to my position at Southpoint, and I also wish I knew then some of what I know now about teaching.

ML: Wow, that is impressive! What are some of the things you learned about education and pedagogy while you were on Bridge Year?

CW: Yeah, I learned a lot about teaching during Bridge Year. I’m in academia now and I am a scientist and a teacher, and I am going to be starting a professorship next academic year. It was funny because interviewing for some of these jobs, one of the things I was asked a lot is how I incorporate innovative or novel pedagogies into my classroom approach. Many of the ideas that are seen as cutting-edge in college classrooms are gleaned from elementary education, because when elementary students are bored you know it. When I responded to those questions I would tell the interviewers that I taught in a classroom in India where if my kids were not paying attention, there was no glass in the windows, and they would just step out of the windows and leave the room.

That is where I learned that school must be engaging and the way to make things engaging is for the content to have meaning for the students. The lessons that were, and are, successful are ones that connected to the students’ lives in meaningful ways, and using that type of engagement to teach other concepts. I also think academia is coming from the space of traditional lectures where some ‘very wise dude’ stands up and imparts knowledge for two hours and then everybody goes home—and that only works for a certain subset of students. When I am thinking about equity in teaching, I think that is where some of these lessons actually come to bear for me—it has to connect to peoples’ lives for them to succeed. Then you aren’t teaching them what you think they know, you’re teaching them what they know they need to know. That’s the place where a lot of my teaching philosophy still comes from.

ML:  Thanks for sharing, would you be willing to share a bit more about what you are doing now, and some of the skills you picked up on Bridge Year that you still use?

Chhaya Werner

photo courtesy of Chhaya Werner

CW: Yeah. Right now I am in a postdoc and I am working remotely. I am not teaching a lot, but I am doing a lot of science research. I study fire ecology, drought, and restoration. I am also focused on becoming more aware of Indigenous practices and raising up the people who are doing restoration. I am considering how we are talking about people who are involved and have been marginalized in these conversations. It is important to look into what the consequences of these things are going to be for different communities. I don’t always study this side of things, I study the science of these issues, but I am always thinking about science through that lens.

My new position starts in the fall and I will be a professor at Southern Oregon University and will be teaching fire ecology and restoration ecology, and will hopefully be able to bring in more of those conversations into my classroom. One of my focuses will be to make sure that diverse perspectives are being highlighted, and students are engaged, instead of me standing up and just teaching what I know about fire.

One of the biggest skills I learned on Bridge Year is you do the best you can from where you are. For me coming from high school, where the message was that everything needed to be perfect, I ended up on Bridge Year in situations where I had no clue what I was doing, or I did things wrong. I did the best I could, but still made mistakes. It was vital for me to recognize that it was okay for me to try my best and things might still look messy. It gave me context to go through life at Princeton and then go through my PhD program with a bit more resilience built up to deal with the pressures to perform perfectly.

ML: Are there ways that you continue to remain engaged in community efforts?

CW: Yeah a little, and it is mostly wrapped up in being part of academia and community aspects of that. One of the ways I got involved throughout the pandemic was helping to administer and coordinate a Slack network for women of color in ecology and evolutionary biology. That has been a way for me to build a pretty cool online international community. It has been great to see all of the collaborations, support, and mentorship programs that have come out of that network. I also serve on several diversity, equity, and inclusion committees for my department, which are attempting to make things better from within the system.

ML: You’ve shared so many great insights into your experiences on Bridge Year, is there anything else you would like to add?

CW: It was such a big jump for me to do Bridge Year at all, and I am very impressed by students who are considering the program this year. It is important to remember that you don’t have to do Bridge Year all at once, you just have to do it one day at a time. That was how I talked myself into applying, and I decided that I was brave enough to take the first step, even if I didn’t know if I was brave enough to do the whole thing. I am glad I took that first step, because it was an incredibly rewarding experience for me.