Iraqi students test exchange program

BY SCOTT RAYNOR | JULY 24, 2009 7:15 AM

An estimated 40 Iraqi students will make it to the UI in January 2010, a pilot test of a project so ambitious, it left one Iraqi student stunned.

“To be honest, when I heard I didn’t believe it,” said Talib Nawfel Talib, a UI graduate student who left his native country in 2004.

Scott King, the director of the UI Office of International Students and Scholars, will join representatives from 21 other universities in Washington, D.C., this weekend to participate in the official announcement of the Iraq Education Initiative.

The Iraqi government funds the program, which aims to send 10,000 Iraqi students to participating nations — namely the United States. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will sign the agreement with the national nonprofit organization Academy for Education Development in Washington on Saturday.

“It is such a privilege and an honor to be a part of something that we think of as a part of history,” said Sandra MacDonald, the vice president of the Academy for Education Development. “We expect the impact of these programs to be big.”

The program aims to unify Iraq by focusing on representing students from diverse backgrounds, she said. Another goal is bridging differences in education. Iraq has been isolated from Western academic institutions for more than 20 years, leaving students with “a lot of catching up to do.”

Talib agreed the exchange is beneficial.

“I think it will be good for both sides,” he said. “It would be good for students here to learn about Iraq and Iraqi people.”

Today, only around 200 Iraqis are studying in the United States; eight attended the UI last fall, King said.

The 22 educators meeting in Washington visited Baghdad in January, though at that time, 60 schools were invited. Officials from some universities were concerned that Baghdad was unsafe, King said, though he himself didn’t feel that way.

“We got an invitation backed up by ambassador,” he said. “It seemed like a pretty good deal to me.”

The visit, he said, had a powerful effect on him.

“It is interesting to see a city that is coming out of a war,” he said. “Physically, there was a lot of damage and a tremendous amount of security.”

The plan originally called for the students to enroll in the upcoming fall semester, but King said there were some obstacles stemming from ethnic conflict in the country.

“It is going slower than everyone anticipated,” he said. But King was confident in the program’s progress.

“They are trying to get it done right as opposed to getting it done fast,” he said.

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