A free education

February 26th, 2010

The students were hungry.

Michael Wilhelm, West Virginia University’s director of the Office of International Students and Scholars, and David Stewart, WVU’s associate vice president and dean of students, could see that as soon as they entered the hotel ballroom in Baghdad.

Nearly 1,500 students had packed themselves inside, thrilled at the prospect of moving to the U.S. and receiving a free American education.

Yes, free.

Because the Iraq War and its aftermath have decimated many of the country’s premier universities, the Iraqi government is essentially outsourcing education, paying for 10,000 of the most promising students from its 18 provinces to be educated abroad each year.

Those who are admitted to a U.S. institution receive tuition, room and board and a monthly stipend. The government has set aside nearly $5 billion for the program, known as the Iraq Education Initiative.

And by the looks of the hotel ballroom at that first meet-and-greet in Baghdad, young Iraqis were planning to ensure the government would spend every cent.

“It was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen,” Wilhelm said. “They have such a thirst for education and knowledge, and for the idea of playing a part in the rebuilding of their country.”

WVU is one of the 20 American universities currently affiliated with the program and collectively known as the American Universities Iraq Consortium. It was a natural fit. The University has been stepping up its Middle East recruiting efforts, and its strong engineering programs – especially in the areas of petroleum and natural gas – make it an attractive option for some of Iraq’s top students.

Before the Saddam Hussein regime came to power in the 1970s, the education system in Iraq was renowned for its excellence, and studying abroad was commonplace. In fact, many doctors and educators had spent time in the U.S. at some point during their careers.

Under Hussein, the practice stopped, but the hunger lingered.

Stewart recognized it at a second meet-and-greet in northern Iraq, when he was surrounded by a group of eager students who wanted to talk about the poet John Donne. Apparently, the word had quickly spread that Stewart was an English professor.

“I’m not sure that would happen in the U.S.,” Stewart said.

So far, WVU has received 13 applications through the Iraq Education Initiative and two students have already been accepted by the engineering school.

If the pace picks up, Stewart envisions a spike in the number of Middle Eastern students, which, at 200, is already one of the largest international groups on campus.

“When you go to the Middle East, you see that people do look up to the American Education system,” Stewart said. “They see America as the land of plenty, of freedom, and they’re excited about the possibility of spending four years at an American university.”

Stewart and Wilhelm are equally enthusiastic about the prospect of having Iraqi students on campus, especially at a time when Iraq and U.S. relations are still uneasy.

“So often our ideas are influenced by media and we develop warped views of other cultures,” Stewart said. “Only when you meet people on a personal level do you understand they have the same aspirations and motivations. I hope that having Iraqi students here will help change perceptions and stereotypes.”

“As a state, West Virginia has sacrificed a lot since the Iraq War started in 2003,” Wilhelm said. “So for WVU to participate in the rebuilding of Iraq is extremely rewarding.”



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