THOUSANDS OF REFUGEES AND UNDERSERVED STUDENTS IN AFRICA AND THE MIDDLE EAST GO TO COLLEGE BECAUSE OF THIS ALUMNA
By Bonnie Eissner
Graduate Center alumna Chrystina Russell (Ph.D. ’17, Urban Education) made a life-altering decision in 2013 when she left her job as the founding principal of a middle school in Harlem to bring college education to youth in Rwanda.
“I had never been to Rwanda, and I just hopped on the plane because I was like, ‘Yes, this is the kind of project I want to be involved in; I want to bring K-12 practices into higher education,’” she said.
The nongovernmental organization that she was hired to lead, Kepler, partnered with Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) to give students in Kigali access to U.S. college degrees through a blended online and in-person program, which also required students to get a three-month internship. In 2015, Kepler and SNHU expanded the program to the Kizibia refugee camp in western Rwanda. Now, Russell is a senior vice president at SNHU and executive director of the university’s Global Education Movement (GEM), overseeing college and internship programs for over 1,000 students, many of them refugees, at 10 locations in five countries: Rwanda, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, and Lebanon.
Throughout, Russell has maintained her ties to the Graduate Center. She calls her Ph.D. adviser, Professor Juan Battle, a thought partner in her work. Battle has taught students in her program and set up an internship program for students in Rwanda, which is now overseen by students in the Graduate Center’s International Migration Studies master’s program.
Russell spoke with us about her work from South Africa. “I like living in the same context as our students and with the same internet challenges, connectivity challenges,” she said.
She described the highs and lows of her role and how her Graduate Center Ph.D. has influenced her life.
The Graduate Center: How did you make the transition from educating teens in Harlem to offering college degrees to refugees in Africa?
Russell: I want choice in my life and to do things that I care about. I think that’s how I landed in this work. I spent 10 years in New York City public schools. I taught bilingual special education in the Bronx. Then I did a leadership training program and started Global Tech Prep in East Harlem. It was a nice intersection of a skill set that I had, which was using technology to get traditionally underserved learners performing really, really well.
GC: For your dissertation, which you wrote while working for Kepler, you analyzed the Kepler-SNHU program and its role in creating a middle class in Rwanda. How has your Ph.D. influenced your work?
Russell: It has kept me from drinking my own Kool Aid too much and always having a critical eye towards improvement, understanding the systems that are at play, and the way that the Global Education Movement program that I direct might contribute to those systems.
Refugees getting university degrees is a great thing and at the same time we create the same elitist behaviors — haves and have nots. We still have our students participating in a very capitalistic system that would enable others to point fingers, using our students as examples, saying, ‘See, they can do it, so everybody can do it,’ which we know systems-wise is not always the case.
I'm very proud of what we've built. And I love partnering with students to transform their lives. It’s just the most amazing partnership. And at the same time, I have no problem rattling off the top 25 things that need to be better.
I think we need more Ph.D. researchers and practitioners out there, and I am so proud to be a CUNY grad, to be a member of this community that is really changing people's life outcomes. I needed the kind of support that they offer. And I try to offer that back to my students too, because that’s what I got from CUNY.
GC: What is the hardest part of your work?
Russell: The group of students that I'm partnering with are some of the most resilient, smartest, most creative problem-solvers on the planet as a result of their life circumstances, and at the same time, in so many cases, they have so little control over what’s happening in their lives, including whether they’re allowed to stay in a country or even work in a country.
In Kenya, they’ve said they’re going to close the Kakuma refugee camp that we operate in. It’s 200,000 refugees. So that means we need to be ready to have the learning and the employment and all that move to wherever our students are going to be moving.
GC: The U.N. High Commission on Refugees estimates that are now about 84 million displaced people worldwide, 26.6 million of whom are refugees. What gives you hope as you work in this area?
Russell: A lot of universities get involved with refugee education, but it’s not the full degree. It’s a course, it’s a skill, it’s a class. And that’s all wonderful. Any skill learned, any learning, any contribution in partnership and exchange is a good thing. But the fact that we’re offering a full degree means that people can have the credentials needed to be the problem-solvers for their own communities.
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