In January, 2008, I traveled to Baghdad, together with representatives from 21 other Universities, at the invitation of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki. The purpose of my trip was to explore further the role that the University of Iowa’s International Programs might play in the prime minister’s newly announced educational initiative. With many of Iraq’s young professionals having fled the country, there is a pressing need to educate others to replace them, which would begin to stabilize the country’s economy and secure its future as a democratic society.
Al-Maliki’s plan, once fully implemented, will educate 10,000 Iraqi students abroad per year; with 5 full years of scholarships planned. His initiative will begin in Fall of 2009, with a pilot program. 400 students will come to the U.S., and will be placed in the 22 schools that accepted the invitation to send a representative to Baghdad – among them, the University of Iowa. It was a bold move to send me as a representative to the Iraqi Education Initiative Symposium.
As we anticipate the arrival of these students, it seems appropriate to reflect on the trip that made it all happen, and what it means for all of us.
I saw consistent commitment from the Iraqi government, as well as from educational officials, to ensure that this scholarship program is open, fair, and that it meets the needs of the country. It doesn’t appear that the program has any desire to downgrade existing educational opportunities, as Iraqi university officials were present at all meetings. There is a realization that Iraq universities cannot meet today’s needs, that there is also a need for professionals educated in English speaking countries, and that the scholarship program can be used as a method of engaging US universities in creating linkages to existing schools.
There is also a significant commitment to making this work from US officials in Iraq. We had many of the embassy personnel at all the programs, and they also worked hard to make sure that we, as US citizens and representatives of US universities, were comfortable and accommodated-even though our presence was at the invitation of the Iraqi government and not the US government. This is seen as a big cultural and diplomatic initiative.
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 US Embassy-took care of us. I could tell that they tried the 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. Would I go back? At a moment’s notice. This initiative has such an opportunity to stabilize Iraq that it is worth a bit of discomfort on my part. We were called “pioneers” by many and I honestly feel that way. I think I can honestly speak for all my colleagues who attended this meeting when I say that we are excited about the Iraqi Educational Initiative and feel that we are perhaps changing the world and making it a bit safer. For 30 years I have said that international education is a route towards peace; I’ve never believed this so much as I have in the past week.
An event I will remember forever is seeing the inauguration of President Barak Obama at the US ambassador’s residence on January 20. There was a sense of seeing history while we were making history. I couldn’t help but think back to the Iowa caucuses in January 2008 and think how unbelievable it was that I was seeing the result of my participation in that democratic process while in Baghdad, Iraq.
We often talk in international education about how what we do can change the world, but rarely do we have the opportunity to see this first hand. The Iraqi Education Initiative can bring that country out of years of isolation and make it truly a full member of the international community. The University of Iowa has stepped up to take a leading role as a partner in this project, one which will inevitably help our state with connections to this vital part of the world. I know we are up to the challenge.
Scott E. King is Director of the University of Iowa International Student & Scholar Services