I am sitting at the Al Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad. Around me are four scientists and an engineer. They are my age, English speakers, and like me, dressed in a suit and tie. We talk about soil and plants and water, and then we get down to business.
The business is the same over the entire world. It is simply having access to an American university for an education. In my journey across the globe, in every country I visit, there are meetings exactly like this. We talk about our academic careers, our science, our training, our research, and our teaching careers. And then, like today at the Al Rasheed, we engage the topic of access, opportunity and mandate.
The American university system is still the envy the world. There is no debating this statement, although, and honestly, there are other systems in other countries that are significantly increasing the quality of their educational system. The Internet is driving this quality; students can obtain an entire course, an entire semester, and an entire degree online. An entire course, from syllabus to final exam, is delivered through the computer.
About four years ago a number of us in NRCS took an online Global Climate Change Course from Iowa State University. For an entire semester of 16 weeks 24 of us engaged the professor and each other over the Internet. We never met. Yes, we missed out on the traditional in-class discussions, and missed any opportunity for classroom or field laboratories. But we formed virtual study groups, called each other on the telephone, exchanged emails, and even posted our bios on a class roster.
Today, universities can deliver an entire college education using this system of connectivity, and I might add here the cost is far less than the building and maintenance of our brick and mortar facilities.
Yet the group before me this afternoon tells me this model is unacceptable. And they are right. Coming to America is much more than sitting in a classroom in East Lansing, Madison, or Corvallis. Coming to America is much more than attending a chemistry laboratory in West Lafayette, a physics seminar in Davis, or listening to a guest lecturer in College Station. The breadth of exposure to the Western world, the culture, the good and bad, the bright and dull, and all the freedoms we enjoy, draws the international community to our universities. The five Iraqis sitting with me today tell me this, and the yearning to see skyscrapers and wheat fields and sports arenas and four- wheel-drive tractors, to walk down a material street like Chicago’s Miracle Mile, and drive along the stretches of sunflowers of North Dakota and visit the huge dairy farms of Jerome, Idaho and the small homestead dairies of Allentown, Pennsylvania…these are the American Experience. And not one attained on the Internet.
Our discussion moves into opportunity. And that means preparing oneself for a chance, a selection, and an opportunity to attend an American university. One must have a sponsor. Must speak English. Must have the entry background academically. One does not enter Michigan State University’s Crops and Soils Department program without some fundamental training in mathematics, chemistry, physiology, and biological sciences. And always, incoming students must have computer skills, know the typical software programs, and have Internet knowledge. Most of all, they must have a work or study plan well developed, with the discipline to complete it. The typical constraint is the English language skills. Students may speak the language but their writing skills are substandard. And regardless of study area, the sciences or humanities, in every college and university, writing is the most important skill. In almost every professional career, advancement is based in large part on writing proficiency.
Finally, our group talks about the word mandate. This is often overlooked but I consider it the most important of all. For I am certain that we do harm if we educate the mind and yet do not give that person the mandate to implement that knowledge. Every one of us having completed the path through universities, one or more, did so for more than just the joy of leaving home, of experiencing the college life, of participating in the culture of college, and certainly for just intellectual enlightenment. We did so to contribute to our space…be it a local contribution or a global one. We went to college to increase the bar of humanity just a bit higher…we had access, the land grant university system is in nearly every state...we had opportunities, even with scholarships, Pell Grants, and work study programs, we found ways to get an education….and we had a mandate, the assurance that someday we would give something back to our society whether it be locally or globally. These I know to be true, for I am a product of this model. I could not be here and do this work, without my professors and my fellow students and the university system at three land grant universities.
Often in international work, the mandate part is least understood. Prospective students want access to our American universities; have prepared themselves for the opportunity to go there with training, sponsorship, and acceptance, but what about afterwards? What happens when the young Iraqi has earned his Soils degree from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln? If he or she goes home, that is comes back here to Iraq, and is not given the mandate to use these skills, to implement the wisdom, to improve the local condition, then I am sure we have done harm. That young person knows what can be. He knows what to do, what to build, what to teach, what technology to transfer, and how all of these bring civility to a village, a town, a city, and an entire region. These are the building blocks of the human journey, and they are based in the mind. An educated mind, one that can think, can dream, and then implement, and build, and evaluate, and then mentor the next generation of engineer or scientists or civic leader or businessman…these all can only be done if that educated mind includes the mandate to go do these.
Often, and unfortunately, I visit Extension Centers here in Iraq. They are staffed with educated people. They sit in rooms and have little to do…they lack a mandate, they lack tools, and they lack purpose. This is a waste. This is and these are opportunities squandered. And I find this all too often in my work.
So here we sit and I leave my colleagues with this. Finding access to American universities is the easy part. They are eager for foreign students, especially those with sponsorship. Finding prospective students is not a constraint….many young people here in Iraq at this very moment are learning English one word at a time so they may complete the language portion of the entrance exams.
The third part of the model, the mandate, is the hardest part. And so I look my colleagues squarely in the eyes and tell them this: “You will figure this out.” In four to five years a group of Iraqi students will be given a diploma and they will come home. What happens then? I posit here that they must be given the mandate to get something done, to implement something, to write a business plan, to work as a public servant with a specific set of objectives….and the list goes on and on.
Iraq, and dozens of other countries in the world, must fully understand that just building schools and just educating their young people, at home or in the West, is just a part of the journey. The goal, and it is the same all over the world, is to put that education to work….and raising the bar of humanity just a bit higher for every one of us having been here.
For I am tired of drinking tea in a room with four irrigation engineers sitting in a building in the rural countryside of Iraq. They have few tools, fewer resources, and lack a mandate to do anything. They draw a salary and go home each day without having done a thing to make this village or this town or this country any better. Yes, there are exceptions. But generally, the tea visit is typical.
This is not easy work. Providing the mandate is the hard part of rebuilding a country. But it will be done by those able to grasp the obvious…anything less, and an entire nation stagnates, decays, and slides down the scale of civility.
This was my parting comment to my friends here at the Al Rasheed. We shook hands and departed. I am wondering what will come next. PD