HOBOKEN, N.J. — On a warm summer's day, on a quiet New Jersey campus with a stunning view of the New York City skyline, nine veiled Afghan women are having an animated discussion in Farsi about the teaching of algebra.
For more than five years, these college professors were unable to work in their own country, due to the rule of the Taliban. Today, however, they're here at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, learning how best to help the many Afghan students whose educations were disrupted by politics and war.
The women have been in the US for six weeks, talking about technology and teaching strategies, and soaking up basic computer skills. They've traveled in and about Washington and New York, have explored the Internet for the first time, and experienced the thrill of sending their first e-mail.
The hope is that the windows that have opened for them will touch the lives of large numbers of their students and colleagues as well. But - admirable as that goal may be - it's not enough for Stevens president Harold Raveché.
"This is not just a summer program," says Dr. Raveché. "This is part of a much broader initiative for Stevens in Muslim countries."
The real long-term goal Raveché dares to articulate is peace in the Middle East.
"Our view is that peace in the Middle East will be advanced only as [the countries in the region] diversify economically," he says.
Heightened interest in Muslim nations has of course become commonplace in the US since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But the focus is nothing new for Stevens.
Stevens was part of a multi-university team that helped to build the first engineering school at Kabul University in the late 1960s. The engineering school was later destroyed during the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan, but ties remained tight between Stevens and the Kabul engineering community.
Recently, when it became time to talk about the rebuilding of the school, some Afghan professionals expressed a particular interest in working again with Stevens.
As a result, a planning session will be held at Stevens in September, bringing together US and Afghan professionals and academics, including the international Society of Afghan Engineers, based in Clinton, Va. The school currently has about 800 students enrolled, with only two professors.
"What Stevens can offer is the adaptation of Stevens curriculum to fit the culture and needs of Afghanistan," says George Korfiatis, dean of the Stevens School of Engineering.
For the US planners involved it's also an unusual chance to design an engineering school from scratch. "It's a unique opportunity to start at the cutting edge," says Dr. Korfiatis.
But the Kabul engineering school is far from representing the full extent of Stevens's engagement with the Muslim world. In the 1970s the school helped to establish the Institute for Petroleum in Algiers.
More recently, Stevens has also become the academic partner for what will be the first private university in Saudi Arabia.
The new Saudi university is slated to open in September 2004 and will also allow both women and men to study engineering. Stevens will train both male and female engineering professors.
For Raveché, it's all part of a broader push to foster a technology-based economy in the Muslim world.
"Ninety percent of the workforce in Saudi Arabia is in government jobs," he says. In Kuwait - where Stevens hopes to help establish a technology innovation center - about 94 percent of workers are employed by the government.
Because private enterprise is almost nonexistent, "to be a scientist in these countries is a dead end," Raveché says. It's a condition he hopes will be altered by better educational opportunities.
Meanwhile, in Hoboken, the nine Afghan women are taking a moment to reflect on all the aspects of life in America that have surprised them. Given their technical backgrounds, all marvel at the physical structures they see around them.
They reel off a list of wonders: high rises, highways, advanced equipment and infrastructure, the laser in the Stevens physics lab.
But as they encounter such impressive objects, their own country is never far from their thoughts.
"Museums, laboratories - I hope it is not just a dream that someday I will see such things in Afghanistan," says Shajan, professor of physics at Education University in Kabul.
The women say they hope their presence in the US has brought several messages to the Americans they've met.
One is "that we are not part of the Taliban," says one of the women.
"Please look at us as Afghan people."
But there is another equally urgent message they hope to convey to whoever will listen.
"Take my voice to a higher level," pleads Tafseera Joyan, professor of biology at Kabul University. "Let them know of our needs."
"We don't have anything in our schools," adds Wahida Rahim, professor of mathematics at Kabul Polytechnic. "We have no chalk, TV, VCR, chairs, or tables."
Supplying these needs is a dream the women would all like to see fulfilled. They hope to see their country one day hold its own academically with the US.
"We, too, would like to have these programs," says Professor Joyan.