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Would you risk your life to take business classes?

Many Afghan college students who attend the American University in Afghanistan do. They represent the vanguard of a movement to restore Afghanistan’s intellectual capital – and peace. While militaries come and go, universities are enduring investments, at a fraction of the cost.

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For less than 15 percent of what the Pentagon spends in Afghanistan every 24 hours, it is possible to open a university, hire international professors with doctoral degrees, provide housing and security, admit close to one thousand students, and keep classes going for five years.

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AUAF's students and success

Take AUAF, which quietly opened its doors in Kabul in 2006. Backed by Western governments and individual donors from Afghanistan and abroad, the university has seen its own surge since its first class of just 53 students, having grown to almost 800 men and women in less than five years. AUAF recently finished two new buildings, one for faculty offices and one for student services, to keep up with demand.

Who would risk their life to attend English and business classes? Some, like Sayyed, arrived under trying circumstances. Many are refugees, returning from neighboring countries. Most have harrowing stories to tell of avoiding the Taliban. Almost all have suffered incredible hardship for the opportunity to study on this modest, five-acre campus.

Perhaps because of that adversity, students already exhibit startling leadership skills. With the professional and educated classes decimated by astonishing brain drain and constant warfare, students on campus here – and at other schools around the country – young as they are, are already aides to politicians and doctors, heads of companies, and entrepreneurs starting organizations that will create jobs.

New leaders are an enduring investment

Embracing the freedom granted them on campus, most become increasingly assertive, confident, and secure in their capabilities and visions for the future. While the military convoys that make reconstruction efforts possible roll past the campus gates, the young men and women of AUAF spend their days perfecting English and learning the vagaries of accounting in hopes of launching new enterprises in everything from agriculture to fashion to software. Their tangible optimism about the future, often expressed on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, which are must-haves, is contagious.

This spring, some of these students will receive their degrees in AUAF’s first commencement ceremony. It is a milestone in the university’s young life – and one we should all celebrate.

While militaries come and go, universities are enduring investments. Their agendas are simple: to teach those willing to learn – and to be a beacon to young men and women as they dream about shaping a peaceful and prosperous future for their country.

Dr. C. Michael Smith is the president of the American University of Afghanistan.

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