How SNHU Is Helping Refugees Get a New Start Through Global Education Program
Over the past few years, escalating conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and the South Sudan, as well as other countries, led to an influx of refugees seeking asylum abroad. According to the UN refugee agency, by the end of 2016, there were 22.5 million refugees around the world. 20 people were forced to flee their homes every minute. And 51% of those refugees were children.
As refugees seek jobs and homes in new countries with different industries, languages, and cultures, educational organizations across the globe are working to provide affordable, adaptive educational solutions to help train these refugees for future jobs, and to help the millions of children affected by the displacement to keep up with their peers.
According to Chrystina Russell of Southern New Hampshire University, the support needed for these refugees is perhaps “one of the biggest, if not the issue of our times.” Formerly a middle school principal and co-founder of the Kepler educational program in Rwanda, Chrystina is the Executive Director of SNHU’s Global Education Movement (GEM). As part of this program, Southern New Hampshire University provides online higher education to refugees throughout a number of countries, partnering with local educational organizations to provide supplemental support.
In this interview from the 2018 LearnLaunch conference, we speak to Chrystina about how SNHU is using its digital resources and partnerships abroad to bring education to refugees around the world. Listen in to learn more.
Play the podcast episode above, watch the video below, or download the interview on iTunes for the full interview.
Hannah Nyren: Welcome to the EdTech Times podcast.
Hannah Nyren: This is Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times, and today I’m speaking with Chrystina Russell. And if you would like to introduce yourself, Chrystina, tell me all about what you do.
Chrystina Russell: Sure. My name is Chrystina Russell. And I work with Southern New Hampshire University. And I’m heading up our global education movement, where we’re educating refugees and host community populations and helping them earn a fully accredited U.S. bachelor’s degree from Southern New Hampshire University. We’ve got an incredibly exciting year, this upcoming year, because we’re expanding to Kenya, Malawi, Lebanon, and South Africa as well as continuing to support the work in Rwanda. So incredibly excited […] to really leverage educational technology to bring degrees to some of the planet’s most deserving populations.
Hannah Nyren: So you spent a lot of time in Rwanda, you said?
Chrystina Russell: Prior to coming to Southern New Hampshire University, I actually worked in Rwanda with our partner there, Kepler. So I’ve been on the partner end of the work, which is really great because now, working with the university, I think I can do a great job supporting our partners who work with us on the ground to make sure that this all comes together and students can earn the degree. So, I was living and working in Rwanda for three years and launched the campus in Kigali in 2013. And then in Kiziba refugee camp in 2015. And then subsequently came to SNHU to figure out, “How can we scale this model and serve more learners?”
Hannah Nyren: So you have a very close perspective on what these people are going through.
Chrystina Russell: I do, yeah, I think through really knowing the students, many of them at a quite individual, personal level, I’ve certainly come to learn a lot more, both for empathy, but more importantly to think about, how do we design a program and think about universities becoming flexible to students, rather than asking students to mold themselves to us?
Hannah Nyren: That’s a really good point. So we’re here today at the LearnLaunch conference. And you’re speaking on a panel very, very soon. So tell me a little bit about what this panel is going to be about.
Chrystina Russell: Sure. Well, we’re just going to talk about refugees, refugee education, and we’re going to dig a little bit deeper into, sort of, some of the operational challenges and requirements: So how do you do an online program where there’s only solar power, or maybe even no power to start with? Then we get solar in place, and then suddenly it’s a rainy season. What happens when our batteries melt down that are connected to that solar power? How do we work and train local talent to make sure that SNHU has a degree program that yes, meets the high U.S. accreditation standards, but also that’s relevant to students? Because jobs are a really big part of our metrics in how we measure success.
Chrystina Russell: So we’re going to talk about employment, we’re going to talk about the operational issues, and also just about how to be good learners and teachers. Learn more as we keep going and modify the program to our students and make sure that students get really high quality teaching and what some of those models look like.
Hannah Nyren: Great. So what do you think some of the most important skills and tools refugees coming from other countries might need if they’re to gain employment in say the U.S. or Canada or some country that is safe for them to escape to?
Chrystina Russell: Yeah, sure. Well, this is one place where Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America or CFA as we call it competency-based degree really comes into play. We created this degree not only with academics, but also with employers. And we asked them to tell us, “What do you wish your graduates had? What skills are needed?” So we hear that students need more work with taking initiative. With critical thinking.
Chrystina Russell: This is not the information shortage time, students are — and employees — are faced with massive amounts of data. So what do they do with that? How do they synthesize it? Present it? How do they know that it’s valid? How can students do quality Excel and PowerPoint presentations and — more importantly — you know, how can students be ethical in a really complex, changing, and sometimes unethical world?
Chrystina Russell: So our degree has really been molded to what employers say that they want. So we are — we’re off to what I think is a head start in a lot of ways, this is not a big theory-based degree. I think it’s our job to really measure students along the way and see what skills they have and what we need to help them with in the employment realm.
Chrystina Russell: I think also helping refugees understand what they do bring to the table. So in a country where there’s a lot of negative rhetoric, a lot of times around refugees, around immigrants, really bringing the stats to the forefront that refugees and immigrants become really key economic contributors to our society over time.
Chrystina Russell: They’re much more likely to become entrepreneurs and to run successful businesses over the long term than those of us who were born here. And so we want to help employees who maybe have been refugees in the past understand that. And then also there is a certain level of resilience and grit in a refugee employee that you just won’t find elsewhere. So it’s about finding the skill gaps and it’s also helping our students, soon-to-be employees, understand how does their life experience help them bring a lot of great qualities to the workplace as well?
Hannah Nyren: Yeah, that’s great. So I don’t know if a lot of people really discuss this when it comes to education for refugees but, you know, they’re not just…someone from a kush background going straight into education. It’s someone who is currently dealing with, probably a lot of trauma, and they’re trying to gain skills. And I feel like the collateral damage may get in the way of that. Is there any sort of program for emotional support? How do you foster their social and emotional learning as well?
Chrystina Russell: So this is where the partnership component comes in as a really big piece. So this is not just an online degree, where we say, “Hey students, go for it. And if you make it great, and if you don’t too bad.” So we work really closely with high quality partners to do this work. So in Rwanda, our partner is Kepler. And Kepler has a clinical psychologist on staff, as well as a nurse. And that’s a really key component in helping students through. Lunch is also served on the refugee camp campus, as well as the campus in Kigali. And our partners in South Africa, Scalabrini [Institute for Human Mobility in Africa], our partners in Kenya, Malawi, JWL [Jesuit World Learning], our partners in American University of Beirut.
Chrystina Russell: They tend to take that same philosophy as us, that learning is not just about the content. It’s about some of the things that you’re talking about: How do we overcome trauma? How do you work through a family member being sick? How does nutrition play into education? So we really look for partners that help us provide those services on the ground. Kepler is a great example of doing a phenomenal job on both the nursing and counseling front, as well as the nutritional front. And along with that is some of, the sort of, extracurricular activities that maybe don’t come along with online education. So there are sports clubs involved. And all of that, we know helps students deal with stress, become more resilient.
Chrystina Russell: So really, you know, the way that we address that is again through the on-the-ground partners, who are doing an amazing job providing and working through that support and having coaches who really talk with that about students. Coaching isn’t just about academic content, It’s about…
Hannah Nyren: Empowerment as well.
Chrystina Russell: Ok yeah, yeah let’s see what’s happening and why you’re not doing this? And we get into a lot of life issues in that space as well.
Chrystina Russell: I do want to highlight, though, that we hold our students to really high expectations. And I think that’s the secret sauce of kind of really tough love, but very high expectations. Because if we also say “Oh well, you’re a refugee, and you have trauma. So therefore you can’t do X, Y, and Z.”
Hannah Nyren: That’s not going to do anyone any favors.
Chrystina Russell: It doesn’t, yeah. So it’s really striking that balance of very firm, high expectations, helping the student meet their potential in that way, and then having the supports along the way to enable them to meet that potential.
Hannah Nyren: Well great. I’m so glad that you’re doing that. This is a really important issue right now, and there are many people who need your help.
Chrystina Russell: Thanks, we appreciate it. You know, it’s, Southern New Hampshire University is a special place.
Hannah Nyren: There’s so much going on right now.
Chrystina Russell: There is. I mean this is only one project of so many amazing things. But the institution takes on a fair amount of risk with doing this work. And I’m not sure you’ll find a lot of places that are willing to do that. But for us it’s more about “let’s do what’s right. And we’ll handle that risk and we’ll handle those challenges as they come along.”
Hannah Nyren: Great, Well thank you so much for speaking with me today.
Chrystina Russell: Thanks, Hannah.
Watch the full interview with Chrystina:
Hannah Nyren is the General Manager of EdTech Times. A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.