University brings American-style learning to Iraq
At the year-old American University of Iraq–Sulaimani, students are encouraged to think independently.
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"Right now, if you don't have a relative somewhere, you won't get hired," says the student at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS). "When we graduate, we're going to have a lot of talent and ... qualifications.... [Iraq needs] people who really serve their country, not just themselves and their families."
In a region of authoritarian teachers and governments, the one-year-old AUIS is trying to reinvent university education and produce independent-minded graduates who can help rebuild Iraq in the process.
"The whole of their high school training has been people standing up in front of the room lecturing to them," says provost Joshua Mitchell, who is on leave from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "They think they're supposed to sit there quietly and listen. We're teaching them in this first year ... substance in their course work, but we're also teaching them how to be a new kind of student."
Most of the students have never written an essay or worked with computers. But they seem to be absorbing the lessons.
"If people want to stay here and help Iraq everything has to be changed," says Dea Dlawar, sitting at her desk wearing pink and purple hand-warmers. She says she wants to go into politics.
In Iraq, as in other parts of the Middle East, the brightest high school students are channeled into engineering and medicine. The country is awash in natural resources but has a severe shortage of managers and technocrats to run the government ministries administering them.
Mr. Mitchell, who helped start a school of foreign service in Qatar, says the private university aims to produce graduates who will be indispensable to government ministries as well as socially responsible entrepreneurs. The students are expected to engage in community-service projects.
"We want to build a vibrant entrepreneurial class – people look at America and they say it's casino capitalism, it's rampant individualism. But the point is, America has survived for the last two or three hundred years because it has ... self-interest but also a deep commitment to community service," says Mitchell.
"We are focusing on areas where Iraq's future depends on critically," says Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, the university's founder. "Management, IT … you have too many engineering faculties but you don't have a good-quality business school, you don't have a good-quality IT school."
Two hundred and fifty-six students are enrolled here, about 20 of them in an MBA program, with the rest pursuing undergraduate degrees. Most are Kurdish but some are Iraqi Arab and Turkmen. Mitchell says the university is operating on a shoestring budget. If they can raise the money, officials hope to start an agriculture and public-health program – and, eventually, petroleum engineering.