With her impressive academic and administrative career, it was hardly surprising when Aree Adel Abdulqader was chosen as president of Duhok Polytechnic University, in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.
A graduate of the first cohort of the University of Duhok’s Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry in 1996, Abdulqader was among the first to get a master’s degree in wood technology from the same university in 1999, followed by a Ph.D. in wood science from the University of Mosul in 2007.
Inspired by Duhok’s spectacular mountains covered in pine and oak trees, Abdulqader has published more than 11 research papers on the wood industry and the physical and structural properties of wood.
“We love nature and forests,” Abdulqader told Al-Fanar Media in a Zoom interview. “We encourage people to cultivate more trees and preserve forests.”
Building Capacities and Connections
Before she started her work as president of Duhok Polytechnic University in August, Abdulqader held many administrative positions. “I was the head of Forestry Department at the University of Duhok, an academic staff representative on the University Council, and dean of Ararat Private Technical Institute for four years,” she said.
“The regulations are the same: those of the Ministry of Higher Education. I am just trying to know the details of the departments, explore the curricula and syllabi, and get acquainted with the academic staff.”Aree Abdulqader
Having studied and worked at the University of Duhok, the parent institution of Duhok Polytechnic University, Abdulqader did not find the administrative job difficult.
“The regulations are the same: those of the Ministry of Higher Education,” she said. “I am just trying to know the details of the departments, explore the curricula and syllabi, and get acquainted with the academic staff.”
A collegiate research university established in 2012, Duhok Polytechnic is one of three public universities in Duhok Governorate. Abdulqader says her first mission is to build the university’s connections with local and international higher-education institutions.
“I aspire to build bridges and collaborate with other polytechnic and applied science universities,” she said. “Unfortunately, we have a small academic staff, of 379 faculty members only. I work on creating an environment to open the way for them to get scholarships to obtain postgraduate degrees from abroad. This will add value, bring another culture and spirit to the campus, and develop our university’s brand.”
To achieve this goal, Abdulqader encourages faculty members to do original research papers and get them published in journals with a high “impact factor”—a metric based on the number of times a research article is cited or how often the journal in which it appears is cited. (See a related article, “A New Way to Measure the Importance of Arabic Research.”)
“I also focus on university relationships with international universities,” she added. “Currently, we have many programs with Unesco, the Mediterranean Universities Union (Unimed), and others. This can help us take the university to a global level.”
Abdulqader’s plans also include deeper collaboration, staff exchanges, and holding mutual conferences with Duhok’s other two public universities, the University of Duhok and the University of Zakho, on the border with Turkey.
Female University Leadership
With her new post at Duhok Polytechnic University, Abdulqader becomes the first female university president in Duhok Governorate and one of two leading a public university in Iraqi Kurdistan, after Halabja University in Sulaymaniyah (in 2019).
Other female leaders in the region include Dawn Dekle, an American educator who in 2013 became the president of the private American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. Also in northern Iraq, Saba Adnan was the first Iraqi female president of Tikrit University for a few months before the city was overrun by the Islamic State in June 2014. (See two related articles, “A Conversation with the Iraqi Minister of Higher Education,” and “Arab Women Are Left Out of University Leadership.”)
Abdulqader agrees that women in the Middle East often face difficulties in advancing to leadership positions as many men cannot easily accept women leaders.
“Personally, I did not face a big problem. My family has always supported me. This gives me greater power to do whatever I want,” she said. “People around me understand I am a strong woman.”
“We have not mandated the vaccine, yet we encourage our students to get vaccinated, follow social distancing, and wear masks. We get all facilities to help our students get the vaccine from Duhok’s health directorate.”Aree Abdulqader
Abdulqader thinks that a woman must lead in her own way. “I manage as a woman, not a man,” she said. “Men tell me you need to be tough and strict. I do lead the institution in a serious way, following all the regulations, but in a smoother and quieter style.”
Covid-19’s Impact on Studies
After a nearly two-year interruption of classroom studies due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Abdulqader aspires for Duhok Polytechnic University to pay more attention to practical teaching now.
“Covid-19 forced us to deliver everything online. This affected students’ achievement,” she said. “We are a polytechnic university, 70 percent of our studies should be practical. Students were not satisfied last year due to the lack of practical classes.”
While preparing a special e-learning platform for each college, providing lectures in PDF format and recorded practical videos, Abdulqader welcomes students’ return to on-campus study amid strict precautionary measures.
“We have not mandated the vaccine, yet we encourage our students to get vaccinated, follow social distancing, and wear masks. We get all facilities to help our students get the vaccine from Duhok’s health directorate,” she said. “If not, they will not be allowed to attend lectures without masks.”
Iraq has a youth unemployment rate of 36 percent, according to a 2018 World Bank document, and about 700,000 young Iraqis come onto the job market each year. (See a related article, “In Iraq, Hunger for Jobs Collides With a Government That Can’t Provide Them.”)
“We have been working together since 2015 in the framework of a capacity-building project aimed to support refugees’ integration in the university,”Silvia Marchionne
A project manager with Unimed
To meet the need for jobs, Abdulqader seeks to better align education and the labor market. “We have collaboration programs with local companies, like a retail company for food items all over Kurdistan to hire some of our graduates to work in marketing, management and IT,” she said. “We are trying to build relations with other companies to help the governorate create job opportunities.”
As of May 2021, Duhok, a governorate of 1.4 million people, hosts more than 84,000 Syrian refugees (one-third of all Syrian refugees in Iraq), and around 500,000 internally displaced people.
To cope with this load, Duhok Polytechnic University established a support unit and provided a course for Syrian refugee high-school graduates with low grades to enroll diploma studies. The program collaborates with HOPES, a European Union-funded project. (See a related article, “Refugee Education: Often-Discussed Problems Find Few Quick Solutions.”)
The university also collaborates with Unimed, the Mediterranean universities group.
“We have been working together since 2015 in the framework of a capacity-building project aimed to support refugees’ integration in the university,” Silvia Marchionne, a project manager with Unimed, told Al-Fanar Media.
Abdulqader said the university has over 200 refugee and displaced students now. The region once had as many as one million refugees and displaced people, she added.
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“It was a heavy load on the local government,” she said. “We were involved to help refugees continue their studies in a highly competitive environment, lowering the opportunities for local students.” (See a related article, “New Syrian Refugees in Iraq Struggle to Access Education.”)
“We are living with this for six to eight years so far,” she said. “We do our best to help both our students and the refugees.”