There’s been a lot of buzz about the new Iraqi Educational Initiative, as well there should be. The sheer number of expected students—50,000 over a five-year period—would capture anyone’s imagination. But coming from a nation that has been so marginalized for such a long period of time, the initiative can’t help but make one stop and think about what an impact this could have.
As one of the couple dozen U.S. educators who travelled to Baghdad and Sulaymania in January 2009 to begin creating the ties necessary to implement the Iraqi Educational Initiative, I often find myself in the center of a flurry of personal and professional questions about the program. Weren't you nervous about going to Iraq? Have you had trouble at your university working around the special academic and language needs of these students? Is this really worth the effort?
In the notes I made within a few hours of leaving Iraq, I had written:
Naturally I thought about security and safety on this trip. But from the moment we arrived in Baghdad to the time we boarded the plane in Sulaymania, the Iraqi government—and, when appropriate, the U.S. embassy—took care of us. I could tell that they tried their best to keep us safe while allowing us reasonable freedom of movement. We all felt treated like dignitaries, and thus realized that our visibility required that our safety be guarded. I never felt in danger; indeed, as someone said, even in the most negative situations, it was like being in the bad area of a major American city.
In particular, I recall the experience of when a small group of us left the area of the Al Rashid Hotel to do a bit of sightseeing, in particular going to a memorial on the conflict with Iran. We had strayed off the normal route and suddenly two Iraqi soldiers approached us. Even with their limited English (and our non-existent Arabic), it was soon obvious that they were honored that these Americans had moved outside of their comfort zone to see a site that had such an important meaning. They gave us a tour of the memorial and posed with us for photos, and then made sure we knew the correct (and safer) way to return to our hotel.
It has also been heartening to see that the standards for this program—proclaimed by Prime Minister Al-Maliki himself—have been largely maintained. It would have been easy to do a quick selection of students to get started, but what I find reflects the consistent commitment I heard from the Iraqi government: this scholarship program will be open, nonpolitical, will reflect the diversity of the Iraqi populace and most importantly, will be based upon valid academic qualifications. A challenge anywhere, but imagine trying to meet these expectations in a country that still has inconsistent communications and pockets of instability. But by adhering to these principals, the University of Iowa now has a group of students (including several women) coming from all parts of Iraq that will study majors across our curriculum. The quality of applicants has encouraged our academic programs to work around the special needs of the students—indeed, we have faculty who are asking for more! The high standards of the Iraq Education Initiative convinced the University of Iowa to step up and take a leading role as a partner in this project, one which will inevitably help our state and institution with connections to this vital part of the world, and one that is demonstrating that we can think and act creatively in the area of internationalization.
A year and a half later, when asked “was it worth it?” and “would I go back?” my response is “yes, and at a moment’s notice.” This initiative has such potential to stabilize Iraq that it is worth the extra time and bit of discomfort on my part. We were called “pioneers” by many and I honestly feel that way. I think I speak for all my colleagues when I say that we are excited about the Iraqi Educational Initiative and feel that we are changing the world and making it a bit better.
For 30 years I have said that international education is a route towards peace; I’ve never believed this so much as I have since my involvement in this program. We often talk in international education about how what we do can change the world, but rarely do we have the opportunity to see it first-hand. The Iraqi Education Initiative can bring Iraq out of years of isolation and make it truly a full member of the global community—what more can someone committed to international exchange ask for?
Scott E. King is the director of the Office of International Students & Scholars at the University of Iowa and a member of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.