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Iraqi Students Seeking Scholarly Homes

Thousands of Iraqi students with government scholarships are seeking good homes. Are U.S. universities ready to provide them?

That was the essence of a session at the annual meeting of Nafsa: Association of International Educators, where highly detailed information on how best to recruit Iraqi students was dished out to an attentive audience.

Of course, since the Nafsa meeting, the survival of Iraq as a country has suddenly seemed to be at risk, with insurgents sweeping in from Syria and Iraqi’s outer provinces to within marching distance of Baghdad.  But no matter the shape of the conflict, the need for education of Iraqi youth is unlikely to go away.

At the Nafsa session, an Iraqi cultural attaché in the United States, Tahnini Al Sandook; a representative of the autonomous region of Kurdistan, Karwan Zebari, and a U.S. State Department official, Lorna Middlebrough, were on hand, among others.

Many of the tips handed out for student recruiting could be applied to other Arab countries.

Despite the size of U.S. higher education, U.S. universities have not performed well in connecting with Iraq, said the Nafsa speakers.  “It’s amazing to me how much the British control this market,” said Kevin M. Browne, a vice provost at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

American universities, he said, should adapt better to the needs of international students. “We keep thinking this is 1955 and our kids are coming from local high schools,” he said.

Universities need to understand that many Iraqi students don’t have easy access to testing centers for English language and college-entrance examinations. The applicants often don’t have credit cards to make online payments for application fees. They may not have access to the Internet at all.  Universities should be willing to consider paper applications, advisors say, and give conditional admission to students who may need more English or basic courses before they can be formally enrolled.

Institutions were also advised to be able to make quick admissions decisions or lose students to competing universities from other countries. At the same time they should not expect speedy action from the Iraqi higher education system. “This is a highly centralized bureaucracy,” said one speaker.

Browne urged American universities interested in Iraqi students to send senior academics to Iraq who could then lobby on behalf of Iraqi students back on campus. Just sending young recruiting staff with little academic knowledge or power won’t work, he said. Many foreigners might think twice about a visit to Iraq these days, of course, but the Iraqis say that foreigners need to realize that some regions are safer than others. In particular Kurdistan is viewed as more secure than other regions and many refugees from the latest battles are fleeing there, because it is protected by troops regarded as highly disciplined and well trained.

Universities should expect getting a pipeline going for Iraqi students to take 18 to 24 months, Browne said. He told university international officers to be prepared to fend off administrative queries such as “You were just in Iraq a month ago, where are the students?”

The Iraqi scholarships have three distinct components: The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research; the Higher Committee for Education Development, funded through the prime minister’s office, and the Human Capacity Development Program, supported by the Kurdistan government and for students living in that region.

Key features of the individual programs:

  • The Higher Committee for Education Development awards about 1,000 scholarships a year for graduate programs in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. It has shifted its focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields to a broader set of disciplines including public administration, education, economics and healthcare.  About 900 students with scholarships are currently looking for places. 
  • The Kurdistan Regional Government’s Human Capacity Development Program supports students seeking master’s and doctoral degrees in science, technology and a variety of other fields. “You can’t build a country on doctors and engineers alone,” said Zebari, who represents the regional government in the United States.  About 90 percent of the 3,200 students currently placed under the program are in the United Kingdom. 
  • The education ministries’ program is intended to send graduate students in STEM subjects to U.S. universities. In 2012, a new round of 10,000 scholarships over five years was announced. The majority of students need English-language training; help with passing required entrance examinations, or even undergraduate coursework. Students are funded for up to a year to study English, given support for their families, and round-trip travel expenses.

U.S. universities were urged to work with advisors for Education U.S.A., based at embassies in Baghdad or Erbil, who can communicate with students in Arabic or Kurdish.  More information is available on the website of the Iraqi Cultural Office, in Washington, which was also scheduled to follow up with an event in Washington this month for U.S. universities interested in Iraq.


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