Virginia Tech program helping strengthen universities in Iraqi Kurdistan

When a group of university administrators and faculty members from Iraq’s northern Kurdish region left home to study at Virginia Tech this summer, the area was at peace. But by the time the 14 educators arrived in Blacksburg, fighters with the Islamic State had unexpectedly taken aim at the region’s capital and more than 1,700 people had been killed The university group was part of an innovative program designed to reform curriculum and instruction in rural Kurdistan. Participants say the program, which has just been renewed for a second year at Virginia Tech, is vital because strengthening the region’s education system is key to fostering long-term stability and preventing the rise of militant groups such as the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
Don Back (left) and Paiman Ahmad
“Universities are the places where we can lead society to be a model society,” said Paiman Ahmad, a participant from the University of Raparin. “When we build up our education, we start seeing improvements elsewhere.”
Funded by the U.S. Embassy in Iraq and run by the Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute in partnership with the Washington nonprofit IREX, the Iraqi Kurdistan Rural Universities Partnership Program was designed to strengthen university administration, modernize course content and teaching methods, and improve English-language instruction. In addition to Raparin, the program also includes the University of Halabja and the University of Zakho. Each of the universities was founded in the past 10 years.
“One of our main goals was to move from a ‘classical’ model of teaching, where a professor stands and lectures with very little interaction with students, to a ‘modern’ model and student-centered teaching,” Ahmad said. “The old way is common across Iraq, but we are younger, we want to embed new technology, new pedagogy to help us stand out.”
Lori Mason, the project director at IREX, said the U.S. Embassy has a very keen interest in supporting these rural universities. “The Iraqi Kurdistan region has been developing very quickly over the past 20 years. In the urban areas, the development is rapid, and there are a lot of opportunities for engagement with the outside academic community. That hasn’t been the case for the rural university,” she said. “For the most part, these institutions are young, the faculties are young, and they embrace change really very quickly. In that sense, they’re a good fit for introducing these types of [student-centered] ideas because much of it is implemented in terms of their own individual classroom instruction.”
Elsie Paredes, Sabah Sulaiman Haji, and Liz Bowles
The program was designed so that colleagues in Kurdistan and the U.S. could develop mutual understanding and cultural awareness in order to establish sustainable relationships and professional networks for academic collaboration.
Don Back directs the Language and Culture Institute and led workshops for the Kurdish administrators. He said the program is an example of Virginia Tech’s land-grant mission.
“From a global higher-education perspective, it’s in the interest of both U.S. and international universities to form partnerships,” Back said. “Such collaborations allow us at Virginia Tech to really share the best of our university while also helping address the specific challenges that confront Iraqi Kurdistan.”
Ultimately, he said, the partnership could lead to collaborative research opportunities and student and faculty exchanges.
The program began in January with intensive workshops in Irbil, the capital of the semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region. Led by faculty from the Language and Culture Institute, the training focused on topics such as curriculum design and instructional methods for English language faculty as well as academic leadership. Participants were introduced to tools such as Moodle, an open-source learning platform. Ribwar Mohammed, who is in charge of curriculum development at Raparin, said his university is already using the online site to help professors interact with their students.
Back said Moodle allows Raparin faculty to put syllabi online and provides greater access to students. “It’s gratifying,” he said, “to see firsthand something that we had introduced being very effectively used.”
Hawraz Hama (left) talks with VT's John Dooley.
Following the workshops, the institute’s faculty led semesterlong online courses. “It was intensive training,” said Hawraz Hama, the chair of Raparin’s English department. “We faced different assignments regarding leadership, professional development, university governance, and being a good leader. It was also good to be introduced to so many new online tools.”
He said his department, which he has led for the past two years, is facing growing pains. “When I graduated from high school in 2003, Iraq was under the process of being liberated by American and coalition forces from Saddam’s regime. The demand for learning English was immediately increased, and it’s only continued to grow since. Our [English department] is growing, because the demand is increasing every day.”
The program’s capstone experience brought the Kurdish educators to Virginia Tech for three weeks. For many, it was their first trip to the United States.
“Before coming to Virginia Tech, most of my information about the United States came from TV or movies,” Hama said. “I expected that American people are, let’s say, not helpful, based on the movies. But when I arrived in Washington, and at Virginia Tech, I found that on the contrary, American people are very helpful and very friendly, and they are ready to help if you need help.”
In Blacksburg, participants met with university leaders, observed classes, conducted research, and participated in a variety of cultural experiences, including a trip to hear the old-time music at the Floyd Country Store’s famous Friday Night Jamboree and a hike up the Cascades.
“The participants were all highly motivated and appreciative of this partnership and the educational activities that we conducted,” said Elsie Paredes, associate director of the Language and Culture Institute. “During the seminars, the discussions and conversations were very profound and engaging. It was a true learning experience for me, not only in regards to the culture, but also the personal stories of some of the participants who shared them with us.”
Omar Fouad Ghafor (left) and Barzan Hadi Hama Karim
Mohammed said he was returning home with a sense of optimism, despite the ongoing violence. “I have lots of ideas now on how the University of Raparin can continue to succeed,” he said.
Hama was similarly enthusiastic. “This trip to Virginia Tech could be a turning point in my professional life,” he said. “The quality of the instruction, the topics, the teachers, the excursions – all of them have been fantastic.”
Hama said he has already instituted changes at his university based on what he learned during the program. The university has approved curriculum reforms that he says will better prepare future English teachers. Courses on some traditional linguistic subjects were eliminated and ones on classroom management, teaching methodologies, and materials design were added. Hama said the Virginia Tech program “accelerated the process of improving the quality of education at our new established universities.”
Back said IREX has approved Virginia Tech to continue the program in 2015.