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Excellence, Equity, and Engagement

by Office of Communications / Sep 19, 2022

Dean Chrystalla Mouza

Chrystalla Mouza, who assumed her duties as dean of the College of Education on August 15, didn’t have an easy road to Champaign. But her lifelong passion for education would not be thwarted by the obstacles in her way.

Mouza’s parents had to permanently abandon their education while they were in elementary school to help out in their respective homes and in the fields. Her two older sisters never had the opportunity to go to college.

In 1974, during a period of political unrest, Mouza and her family were forced to flee their home on the tiny Mediterranean island of Cyprus and become refugees. College appeared to be an unlikely destination in her life, as well.

They landed on their feet in a new town and started a new life. Mouza’s father worked various jobs in the Middle East to support his family, while her mother cared for the three girls at home. Both her parents have since passed away, but their resilience and work ethic reside firmly within her.

Chrystalla Mouza was the first person in her family to attend college. She went where neither her parents nor her sisters could go. She was determined to make the most of it.

And she has.

Here, Mouza shares her passion for education, her career before coming to the University of Illinois, and her vision for the College of Education.

Why did you choose to go into education?
I chose to pursue a degree in education for two reasons: there was a teacher shortage in my home country, and I saw teaching as an opportunity to contribute back to society. I was admitted to the University of Ioannina in Greece, where I received an undergraduate degree in elementary education.
Describe your passion for education and how it has evolved over the years.
Upon graduation from college, I taught elementary school for two years in Cyprus. In my first year, I taught in a city school, not far from where I went to school myself. On my first day, I was greeted by my former fifth grade teacher who had already been at the school for several years. Unbeknownst to me, she brought with her one of my old notebooks she had kept over the years. That incident truly demonstrated the lifelong bond between students and educators and the vital role teachers play in the development of their students. We both taught fifth grade that year and she was an inspiring mentor to me, further fueling my passion to become the most effective teacher I could be.
In my second year, I taught in a small village in a combined first and second grade classroom. It was a formidable challenge, working long hours to prepare educational materials that met the diverse needs of my students, many of whom came from hard-working families who had limited resources but great respect for education. It was during that time that technology had started to make its way into the classroom, and I became intrigued by its potential to support teaching and learning in a powerful, yet constructive way.
You went on to get a graduate degree. What was your motivation?
I developed a strong interest in further improving my efficacy as a teacher through graduate education. To the dismay of my mother, who could not fathom the need for such undertaking, I was fortunate to receive a Fulbright scholarship that allowed me to enroll in graduate studies at Columbia University’s Teachers College. I arrived in New York City in the Fall of 1996 with one suitcase and a lot of dreams of bettering myself as a teacher.
How did your time at Columbia impact you?
Navigating graduate school proved challenging, yet inspiring—mastering a new language, embracing the diversity of people and ideas, adapting to the rigorous academic work, and exploring New York City’s many attractions. Nevertheless, it was my own experience as a first-generation college graduate that reinforced my passion for education and highlighted two critical lessons. First, underserved students frequently struggle to find their place in academe and, therefore, we must strive to create environments that are inclusive, developing a sense of belonging. Second, higher education has the transformational power to create opportunities for people from all walks of life.

Throughout my career, I have remained steadfast and passionate about expanding education opportunities to diverse groups and supporting a higher education system that promotes equity and social mobility. Educational technology remains a precious cornerstone of such equitable educational system.
During your time at the University of Delaware you were also a professor of computer and information sciences. Please tell us about your research interests and how they have evolved throughout your career.
For the past 25 years, my research has explored how educators learn to integrate emerging technologies—for example, software, apps, coding tools, robots, virtual reality—with content and pedagogy to support student learning, and how technology-rich learning environments support teacher and student outcomes. I have explored these issues in real-world formal and informal settings including schools, university classrooms, libraries, and after-school programs.

Starting as a graduate student, I examined the impact of research-based professional development on teacher knowledge, beliefs, and practices in the context of an ambitious federally-funded program aimed at leveraging the role of networked technologies in New York City public schools by connecting schools to the internet and providing professional development to teachers. Much of this work was conducted in under-resourced schools in Harlem and Washington Heights, which fueled my interest in utilizing technology to address long-standing issues of equity.

While my earlier work focused primarily on teachers and students as users of technology, more recent work has shifted attention to teachers and students as creators of computing innovations. In collaboration with colleagues in computer science, we have launched several complimentary projects funded by the National Science Foundation to help teachers and students engage with computer science, including cybersecurity, and to broaden participation in computing. As part of this work, we have designed and offered research-based professional development programs to over 200 teachers in the state of Delaware focusing on computer science principles. In turn, these teachers have reached hundreds of students throughout the state. We have also developed after-school programs in libraries and Boys & Girls Clubs as well as summer camps to expand access to computing among under-represented students.
What attracted you to the University of Illinois? Why did the position of dean of the College of Education appeal to you?
I was attracted to the University of Illinois because of the strong alignment between the College’s vision and my own vision for leadership and excellence. Specifically, there were three primary reasons I was attracted to Illinois: the opportunity to further strengthen research and elevate the prominence and visibility of an already outstanding college, the commitment to the mission of land-grant universities and their role in improving the lives of people and communities locally and globally, and the strong commitment of both the College and the university to diversity, equity, and community engagement—issues that have been at the cornerstone of my work for the last two decades.
What was your most immediate role before coming to Illinois?
Prior to the University of Illinois, I served for five years as Director of the School of Education at the University of Delaware. In that role, I helped bolster faculty and graduate student research, spearheaded development of interdisciplinary programs and certificates, forged international partnerships, and facilitated curricular changes to improve student academic experience and outcomes, increase enrollment, and address teacher shortages. We accomplished a lot during those years, and I felt it was the right opportunity and right time to bring my leadership skills and experience here to Illinois.
What opportunities here excite you?
The College of Education at the University of Illinois has always been a leader among colleges of education and boasts an outstanding faculty and student body. I was excited about the opportunity to work and learn with this outstanding group of colleagues who are committed to preparing the next generation of educators, scholars, and leaders. I was also very excited about the College and campus' strong tradition of interdisciplinary research. I truly believe that to solve complex societal problems we need to bring together expertise from different functional areas. The boundaries between disciplines are becoming less rigid with the focus being on skills and the ability to communicate and collaborate with multiple constituencies across fields. The University of Illinois is at the forefront of such efforts and the College of Education is already well positioned to further support these endeavors, boasting many interdisciplinary collaborations with computer science, engineering, media, and the state-wide Discovery Partners Institute, to name a few. I am also excited about enhancing collaborations with the Carle Illinois College of Medicine and the Research Park as we look for ways to support innovation and entrepreneurship across the university. The Bureau of Educational Research has already been laying the foundation for this work.
What do you see as primary challenges facing the College? What are your initial thoughts about how to address them?
Although not unique to the College of Education, there are many nationwide challenges facing higher education today. These include declining enrollments, the rising cost of higher education, lack of diversity, and our ability to impact practice through scholarship. Confronting these challenges can generate new opportunities that will help the College generate improvements and innovative approaches on how we operate. As a public research university, I believe we are in a unique position to turn obstacles into opportunities and craft a new vision that is centered on innovation, equity, engagement, and research excellence.

We can strengthen our innovative pathways to increase enrollment by rethinking curricula, removing barriers, and fostering partnerships with two-year institutions. The College of Education is already in the midst of new initiatives towards these goals. We can also strengthen our efforts to increase diversity through intentional recruitment, pedagogical strategies that prepare our graduates to work with ethnically and linguistically diverse learners, and scholarships to offset cost. Philanthropy will be a critical component to supporting our mission. Finally, we need to strengthen research-practice-policy partnerships to ensure that the knowledge generated through research endeavors finds its way into practice and education policy.
Do you have any previous connections to the university or the College?
While I have had the opportunity to interact with many of the faculty during education conferences and am familiar with their work, I had no prior direct connection to the University of Illinois. However, my husband is a graduate of the university, having received his Ph.D. in Business Administration from the Gies College of Business. I therefore knew a lot about the university just by listening to his own experiences as a graduate student over the last 25 years we have been together. Our family has been avid supporters of Fighting Illini athletics and can’t wait to cheer for them in person now.
What do you hope to accomplish as the new leader of the College of Education?
While I have ambitions and goals about the future of our College, I believe it is essential to work with faculty, staff, students, and our alumni to develop and nurture a common vision. Specifically, there are three principles that I hope to see woven through all our work: Excellence, Equity, and Engagement.

My primary goal as dean is to support our community in the pursuit of excellence. We have the talent, but we need to make sure that faculty, staff, and students have the resources they need to excel in their teaching and scholarly endeavors. Similarly, I want to ensure that our initiatives are driven by a commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion. I’m passionate about making higher education, especially the University of Illinois education, accessible to all students. It is important to have multiple entry points into our programs, on-ramps for career changers, and financial support to offset the cost of higher education. As a group, we should also examine our curricula to ensure there are no barriers to degree completion. I believe technology could play an instrumental role towards these endeavors and I’m pleased that that the College already has multiple initiatives in place that leverage the use of technology to support teaching and learning, making education more broadly accessible. Finally, consistent with our land-grant mission, it is critical that we elevate our identity as a community-engaged college, mobilizing university knowledge and community experiences to tackle meaningful societal problems.

I am truly honored to serve the College of Education in this role, building on the outstanding legacy of prior deans. I look forward to working with the talented faculty, staff, alumni, and students to further strengthen the College’s prominence and leadership both nationally and globally.