Quick Take:

As a child, Cristine Chopra struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia, receiving a diagnosis only at age 25. Today, Chopra has a Ph.D. and is executive director of the Santa Cruz County College and Career Collaborative, preparing underrepresented students for higher education. She sees a trend of students questioning whether college is worth the cost and the commitment, but says any form of postsecondary education, from a four-year college to technical training, is the key to weathering the ups and downs of modern life.

Cristine Chopra swore she would never become a teacher. Now, she is a local leader in the field of education.

As a child, Chopra struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia, receiving a diagnosis only at age 25, while she was studying for a master’s degree. Because she went undiagnosed for so long, her early experiences with education were difficult. Growing up, she says many of her teachers were unaware that she might have needed accommodations with things like spelling or reading aloud, so Chopra says she received some pretty harsh critiques.

Having persevered through her own educational struggles as a youth, Chopra is now executive director of the Santa Cruz County College and Career Collaborative, where she prepares underrepresented students for higher education. In Chopra’s words, underrepresented students are “individuals who identify as part of a group that has been historically marginalized or who may not have had equal access to resources and opportunities to go to college.”

Working with all 10 school districts in Santa Cruz County, Chopra’s job aims to get educators to think beyond the scope of just K-12 and understand the ways their teaching affects students after they graduate high school.

Chopra meets with teachers across many different schools and grade levels to bring people together around initiatives that support students, something she says feels incredibly empowering.

“There’s something magical that happens when you get people together in the same room,” Chopra said, “especially when it’s from higher education and K-12 because normally they don’t talk to each other. Having them understand each other’s contexts brings me a lot of joy to have them linked up as colleagues around the same purpose.”

After graduating high school herself, Chopra went on to receive a degree in modern literature from UC Santa Cruz. While she was waiting tables at a local restaurant, her mother-in-law, who happened to be a teacher, suggested Chopra should try substitute teaching to make some extra money.

Through substituting in both San Jose and Santa Cruz in the late 1990s, Chopra fell in love with being in the classroom and working with young adults.

Eventually, she moved to Washington and got her master’s degree in teaching from Seattle University.

Chopra didn’t go straight back to teaching upon graduation, instead working for a federal education grant at the University of Washington with the goal of getting underrepresented students prepared for college. In this program, Chopra found her love for advocacy work.

Chopra continued her studies at the University of Washington, eventually getting her Ph.D. in educational leadership and policy studies.

Her work in the Ph.D. program, Chopra said, showed her the importance of digging deep into topics to truly understand what the root issues are. She now finds herself intensely researching data and case studies for the projects she proposes.

Essentially, Chopra’s job is to work with educators and school districts to implement academic policies that will support more students to be academically successful in their futures.

Community members who grew up going to Santa Cruz County public schools might remember their trips to Cabrillo College in fourth grade and to UC Santa Cruz or Cal State Monterey Bay in seventh grade — a program that began in 2013 and which Chopra helps organize. When they visit the schools, students hear from undergraduates, take campus tours, view presentations about future majors and careers, and learn about student organizations. They learn how important it is to get prepared for college and of the many different ways to fund their education.

Cristine Chopra, executive director of the Santa Cruz County College and Career Collaborative
Cristine Chopra, executive director of the Santa Cruz County College and Career Collaborative. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Chopra says it’s important for kids who might not otherwise have opportunities to visit a college campus to see what college is really like and to hear from older students who have similar backgrounds and are now thriving in higher education.

“[My job is] making sure the students know that the decisions they they make early really can help them get a leg up for their success later,” Chopra said.

She also helps create new policies that work toward educational equity within schools, which she defines as providing varying levels of resources to different students based on their actual need with the goal of creating a level playing field. Due to socioeconomic factors or lack of school funding, students don’t always have consistent access to resources such as reliable internet or computers, which puts some students at a disadvantage.

Chopra recently worked with other educators to create what she calls “fair and equitable grading strategies,” aimed at giving students multiple opportunities to show proficiency in their class.

Chopra’s program recently worked on a grading system that would allow students to retroactively improve their grades by showing that they have mastered the subject matter at a later time. “We all learn at different paces and should not be penalized if we can demonstrate mastery of the concepts in the end,” Chopra said. “Grades are one of the most prominent issues affecting students and their social-emotional well-being. We owe it to them as adults to accurately reflect their knowledge and skill.”

Day to day, Chopra connects with other departments in the county office of education to discuss how each can support each other in their projects. She also typically goes to visit a school district and holds meetings with partners at Cabrillo College, UCSC or CSU Monterey Bay.

Chopra also noted that she does a lot of work with numbers — writing grants and creating budgets, a task she never expected to do as a literature major.

The department gets its funding from a variety of sources. State grants and private funding are big contributors. School districts also pay Chopra’s program $1 for every student enrolled.

These grants fund initiatives such as providing professional development for school counselors or hiring academic coaches to help create new grading policies for administrators and teachers.

“I spend a lot of time listening to what the needs are and finding ways to address those,” Chopra said.

Cristine Chopra, executive director of the Santa Cruz County College and Career Collaborative
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Chopra gets to see the results of her work directly. She feels reassured knowing that her own two sons, who are in ninth and 12th grade, now have teachers with equitable grading practices. If they have to miss a test because they get sick, they’re able to show their teachers their knowledge another way.

Like all careers, Chopra’s job comes with its challenges. She says she wishes there was more funding for her prospective programs, and that it can be challenging trying to find all-encompassing solutions that benefit students across the board. Chopra has to allocate the money she has to the places that will see the biggest impact.

“Ethically, there’s a lot at stake using money in education, so I think that every dollar we spend in education has to be spent with students’ best interests in mind,” said Chopra.

Chopra also sees that with ever-increasing tuition and application competition, there are many students questioning if college is even worth it. She says she has seen this trend in both national research polls and through community feedback.

Chopra says that some form of postsecondary education is the key to having options for the ups and downs that life inevitably presents. However, Chopra emphasizes that postsecondary education does not always mean traditional four-year college — it could involve anything from a bachelor’s degree to occupational certification, technical training or some other form of education.

Most of Chopra’s colleagues have bachelor’s degrees with administrative credentials or doctor of education degrees. Not many have Ph.D.s as she does.

“A doctor of philosophy is definitely not necessary in my field, but some advanced graduate degree is necessary,” Chopra said. “That being said, I started with a teaching credential and it grew and grew!”

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Gabrielle Gillette joins Lookout as a newsroom intern for the summer of 2023. A recent Cabrillo College graduate, Gabrielle looks forward to moving to Los Angeles in the fall to finish her undergraduate...