King gives high marks to Iraqi students, despite language challenges

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By Karin Fischer, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Some Iraqi students studying in the United States on a new government-backed scholarship program could be forced to return home if they cannot meet English-proficiency requirements, a prospect that worries international educators.

Officials from a number of American colleges raised concerns about the issue during a session on the Iraqi Education Initiative here at the annual meeting of Nafsa: Association of International Educators. If students lack the English-language skills to enter a regular academic program after one year, they could lose their awards and have to return to Iraq.

“I need to know how I can help this student succeed,” said Laura Chromzack, a coordinator at the Center for English as Second Language at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Ms. Chromzack said her student had come to the university with “absolute zero” English-language skills. Under the requirements of the scholarship program, he will need to finish intensive-English courses by August, but, despite his efforts, he needs another semester before he will be ready to enter a graduate program in political science, she said.

The Iraqi Education Initiative is meant to help rebuild the country’s once-prominent higher-education system by providing scholarships for study at universities abroad to recipients who agree to return to Iraq. The Iraqi prime minister’s office, which oversees the program, allocated $55-million in its first year, the 2010 academic year, for study in the United States and Britain, although the program will eventually be expanded to other countries.

Participating universities offer provisional admission to the Iraqi students, contingent on their becoming proficient enough in English to enroll in their academic programs. Most students are pursuing graduate degrees.

Nagham Al-Azawi, a manager with the Higher Committee for the Educational Development of Iraq, which administers the program, said that, in its first year, the scholarship effort did not require minimum levels of English proficiency for recipients. The previous selection criteria do “have weaknesses,” she said.

Students now must demonstrate a certain level of fluency on standardized English-language tests to qualify for the scholarship.

The committee will consider the individual cases of students already at American universities who are unable to meet the language requirements in the mandated time, Ms. Al-Azawi said. Some could have to return to Iraq.

Despite the struggles of some students with language proficiency, participating universities gave high marks to the first group of students.

“The students, by far, have been the best ambassadors for the program,” said Scott E. King, director of the University of Iowa’s International Student & Scholar Services and a speaker at the Nafsa session.

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