Alumni award winner distinguishes herself working with immigrants, championing media literacy
Chryssa Lazou has spent her career teaching English, supporting immigrants and refugees, and working to improve media literacy in southeastern Europe and around the world
Chryssa Lazou (Master of Education in Open, Digital, and Distance Education ’19) still remembers how hard it was being a little Greek girl in a different country, with a different education system, and speaking a different language.
Although the time her family spent as immigrants in Germany was ultimately short-lived—she was born in Germany but her family returned to Greece when she was just seven years old—she said she continues to carry her experiences as an immigrant several decades later in her role as an educator.
“This is the reason I try to volunteer when I have immigrant students, or when we had the long-term accommodation centre here in Kavala,” she said. “I have tried to do my best to support these people.”
Teaching media literacy
Support for immigrant students is just one aspect of Lazou’s work. She has also taken leadership roles in a variety of organizations focused on improving education. That includes her leadership in launching the CommuniTIES program from 2021-2023, which brought together educators and students in Greece and the Balkans region from diverse backgrounds. Their aim was to support teaching students to not only be better consumers of media, but to also to become educators who teach others about media and information literacy.
With accomplishments like these, she fits in well as the 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award winner. This award recognizes the accomplishments of an AU graduate who has made outstanding contributions to any field or extraordinary contributions to their community.
And with a doctoral degree in education nearly complete, it’s likely she will continue to make an impact—especially in her chosen focus area of combatting misinformation in a digital world where teachers are no longer the only authority.
“Students can find information just clicking a button, and all the information appears to them,” Lazou said. “So, what we really need to teach and support in our students is how to cope with the new reality in the digital era, in an ecosystem with information overload.”
“This is the reason I try to volunteer when I have immigrant students, or when we had the long-term accommodation centre here in Kavala. I have tried to do my best to support these people.””– Chryssa Lazou, 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award winner
A challenging start for a lifelong learner
Lazou’s earliest educational experiences were as a native Greek speaker in the German education system, which she said was quite difficult.
“I had to cope in another country with people who were natives there, and I had to cope with the language and all these stressful things, being an immigrant,” she said.
These challenges abated somewhat when she returned to Greece, and felt she had to work extra hard compared to her peers because her Greek-language skills were not as strong, and the education system was very different.
Ultimately Lazou reflects on that challenge as a positive one, which she said influenced her to cultivate hard work as a core personality trait—and this served her well. Her academic achievements helped her to earn a grant to attend university in Greece, where she studied English.
She was inspired to study English-language literature in no small part because of the influence her earlier teachers had on her, and in particular an English teacher she had when she was nine years old.
“Since I was 12 years old, I’ve been teaching everybody around me English,” she said with a laugh. “I decided that would be my future job.”
A distinguished career
Even before finishing her undergraduate degree, Lazou had been teaching at a private school getting some hands-on experience.
“When you have working experience, and interact with students, this is the best way to find out what really interests you, and what you want to study after,” she said.
Teaching English, as it turned out, was a good fit for her. She spent many years working as a teacher and was also actively involved in leadership roles in her community. This included participating in many volunteer programs to support refugees, and serving as chair of her local English language teachers’ association.
Because of this work she was ultimately nominated for a grant to take part in the International Visitor Leadership Program, a U.S. government initiative that supports professionals in a variety of fields to travel to the U.S. to work with and learn from American professionals.
“I wanted to learn more about North American practice for refugees and immigrants, and how to teach them the English language, and in general cultural issues,” she said.
Finding flexible and innovative learning at Athabasca University
The projects Lazou worked on as part of her trip to the U.S. helped her to realize she wanted to continue with her studies so she could establish herself as a professional in an international context to be able to have a greater impact.
“I wanted to lay the foundations for a very professional style of working with people around the world,” she said.
A Greek friend who had already completed the Master of Education program at AU recommended it as a way to open doors and transform the way she thought about her role as an educator.
She successfully applied to the program when she was in her 40s, with two young children at home, and was even able to get grant funding to help support her education.
“It was a great recommendation,” she said. “When I was coming back from my professional journey to the U.S., I found out that I was accepted for the Northern Lights Award for that year, so I had a grant to support my studies at the same time.”
The commitment she made to herself to work hard in her youth continued through her graduate work, and definitely paid off. She convocated in 2020 and earned the Governor General Gold Medal Award, which is presented annually to AU’s top graduate student.
“I wanted to lay the foundations for a very professional style of working with people around the world.”– Chryssa Lazou
Teaching teachers to work online
Since finishing her degree at AU, Lazou has continued to be actively involved in her professional community, working with various universities in Greece and beyond to help teach instructional design, media literacy, and educational technology.
She has also served, and continues to serve, in leadership roles with professional organizations such as the International Association of Blended Learning.
Her connection to AU remains strong, as well. She continues to work with some of her professors, including Dr. Aga Palalas and Dr. Pamela Walsh, on research projects related to transnational education.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she used her newfound distance-learning expertise working with local scholars to help teachers across Greece and around the world adapt to online learning, and teach them how to do it effectively rather than simply uploading documents to a website. As part of this work, she is now the co-administrator of a distance-learning Facebook group with more than 50,000 members.
“We started supporting educators on how to deal with distance education properly,” she said. “It’s a learning community that’s very important to me, as I found out how many colleagues were suffering with how to cope with the new reality during COVID.”
A lifelong learner and educator
As a self-described lifelong learner, it’s not surprising that Lazou has also continued to pursue education, including a second graduate degree. She said she chose a master of science focused on immersive technologies and innovation in education to create a stronger practical foundation in working with technology.
This foundation is serving her well as she pursues a PhD at the International Hellenic University, focusing her research on immersive technologies in education including augmented reality, virtual reality, and extended reality.
All of this work builds on her previous efforts, and work she continues to do to support learners in Greece, southeastern Europe, and beyond. The importance of this work has been widely recognized by national and international organizations with many awards and accolades.
Lazou said all the awards she has received are meaningful to her, but one that really sticks out is an award from the UNESCO Media and Information Literacy Alliance for her work on the CommuniTIES program.
“It was a milestone in my career that includes all these efforts I have made during these years, internationally, on media literacy and critical thinking,” she said, noting the Balkans region ranks particularly low in media literacy, meaning people living there might be more susceptible to misleading or false news.
“As educators we need to fight this and build resilience in our students—and teach educators how to do this in their classrooms.”