By Eric Niyongira
"If you are born lucky, bring luck to other people. This is how we can change the world.”
These are the words of Chrystina Russell, Senior Vice President & Executive Director of Global Education Movement (GEM) at Southern New Hampshire University.
She is someone living this out as the individual who spearheaded GEM, the first large-scale initiative of its kind to help refugee learners get bachelor’s degrees and create pathways toward employment.
A UN report shows that only 3% of the world’s 70 million displaced people have access to higher education. SNHU’s model is addressing this major problem. GEM partners with existing organizations, NGOs and universities to provide academic coaching, internship and on-the-job training, individualized coaching and career counseling. Currently, GEM serves over 1,000 students in five countries.
Chrystina has been one of the key individuals who has made such an impact possible. I have seen this through her work and how she is driven to solve social problems.
“I can’t reverse the history of the United States,” she said. “I can’t change apartheid/xenophobia in South Africa. I can’t change the way that tensions between Syrians and Lebanese are very heightened right now. But what I can do is help people who come across my program get the tools to be just as empowered as I’ve been through my own education.”
The genesis of Chrystina’s commitment to education was sparked when she was a student at the University of Michigan. Upon entering college, she wanted to become a lawyer. But this aspiration changed once she joined a teaching program for people who had not majored in education but really wanted to make a difference. After this experience, the prospects of going to law school became an afterthought and she became very passionate about using education as a tool to solve society’s problems.
“I really enjoyed seeing how people would change their life trajectory when they use technology in their learning and have somebody to believe in them and care about them,” said Chrystina.
This led to roles as a teacher and a principal at public schools in New York City. She then decided to take on an ambitious role in 2013 as a co-founder of Kepler, a non-governmental organization that provides students in East Africa with access to accredited American degrees through their innovative competency-based online program.
As SNHU’s mission is to educate people and help them to transform their lives through better opportunities, Chrystina and her team opened Rwanda’s first university in a refugee camp. When she visited the Kiziba refugee camp, she realized that there was so much potential but people were stuck and lacked someone who believed in them.
Chrystina believes that every person has the power to do something big if they are given the resources. She realized, in terms of the innovation part, that doing things in a regular way would not produce outstanding results. So, she started realizing how technology should be leveraged.
“Education can be used to solve society’s problems,” said Chrystina. “We should really try to teach our students to be creators of content, not just consumers of content.”
Most would say that bringing university education to refugee camps is impossible. However, that is not the case with Chrystina. Her vision and tenacity were key to both making it a reality and persuading others of its value. As a result, she is bringing hope to the amazing people in Kiziba and other refugee camps and urban areas in Lebanon, Kenya, Malawi and South Africa.
Her qualities of leadership, creativity and excellence, together with a passion for humanitarianism are truly making a difference for a new generation of students.
A job is the best cure for poverty. It is clear to see how economic development and job creation have been Chrystina’s principal focuses.
Advice for Aspiring Innovators
In college, Chrystina worked at waiting tables, which taught her three main things: humility, how to work with other people and multitasking. These are still skills she uses now and has helped her to be an innovator in higher education.
Below are some of her key pieces of advice for aspiring innovators.
Have a choice and do what makes you happy. “My father told me to take risks and pursue choices that make me happy,” she said. Everything in your life is a reflection of a choice you have made. So, if you want a different result, make a different choice.
Talk to people and listen to the community. “Listen to stakeholders, come up with an idea and see if it works. Even if I think it is the best idea ever, if it's not working, I need to let it go and do what’s going to be best for the students,” she said. As aspiring innovators, we need to listen and introduce innovation based on feedback.
Have a mentor. You really move forward with education and guidance from a mentor or a parent. A mentor guides you through difficult choices and helps with personal development and career endeavors. “I had a really great mentor who told me, don't be a lawyer, you'll only be pushing paper. And now he is the president of a university,” said Chrystina.
Help others. “Because I was born lucky, I wanted to bring luck to the rest of the world,” said Chrystina. Giving also connects us to others, creates stronger communities and helps to build a happier society for everyone.
Work hard. Every single day is an opportunity to learn new things. If you want to achieve success, you need to work hard and take risks.
Clearly, Chrystina’s actions are breaking down the walls to the lack of access to higher education in refugee camps. Her career journey is a perfect example of how helping others and believing in vulnerable people is the best weapon to change the world and make it a better place. This interview has inspired me about the power of associating with people who can push me forward.
The world is painted black and white where everyone works to get money. Sometimes, we leave the poor behind for the sake of making money. However, Chrystina’s story inspired me that living a happy life is serving others and bringing luck to those who were born unlucky. Life can’t be all about money.
It was interesting to hear first-hand from Chrystina how talking to people, seeking feedback, listening to them and being flexible brings innovation. As a young professional man, I too will strive to reinforce the power of education, technology and innovation to make the world a better place.
Learn more about Chrystina Russell via LinkedIn. Eric Niyongira is a student at Global Education Movement (GEM) at Southern New Hampshire University. The mission of this program is to provide access to higher education and a path to employment for refugees. Connect with Eric on LinkedIn. He wrote this story after going through Global Innovators Academy’s Interview an Innovator course experience.