It’s a great privilege as well as honour for me to be the recipient of the Cassandra Pyle award, presented by NAFSA, the most renowned organization in international education. I proudly, accept this award and will work hard to abide by the ideals which this award represents.
NAFSA, the world’s leading education organization and you as educators recognize the importance of the work we do. Indeed education is the basic ingredient of development and progress. This was valid centuries ago and is compounded today.
On a personal level, I believe that education is the fuel that nourishes the human spirit. It is as somebody said “the trade wind that carries one from the sea of total isolation and despair into the safe harbor of personal enlightenment and self-control”. Becoming educated is the key to development and progress of individuals and societies.
I have been involved in international education all my life but, I presume this honor was bestowed on me because, of the Iraq Education Initiative. The Iraq Education Initiative is an exciting program that will transform Iraq into a new era. Very briefly, the Initiative is a program to uplift and to restore the Iraqi Education System to higher standard traditionally valued by the people of Iraq.
There are two specific goals for this Initiative.
* Over the next five years Iraq will provide thousands of full scholarships to its students to study abroad in selected countries and, second,
* To reform the Iraqi Educational System. We expect this to be an enormous and difficult task that will take years to accomplish. Change can be difficult and changing an education system will be an enormous undertaking. However, we are determined to look at the system critically and to figure out what values and skills our students should have going into the 21 Century. We will be introducing critical thinking, new curriculum, new teaching methods, and new fields of studies which are not available in Iraq at the present time
In order to achieve this objective, we are well into the first phase. The Higher Committee for Education Development, the arm of the Initiative has awarded 600 scholarships to high-achieving students; many of them are on their way to the US and to the United Kingdom. The second phase will begin on July 1 where another 1000 scholarships will be announced and awarded during the months of September and October. Those students are allowed to study any discipline they like but we are encouraging them to study disciplines which are important for rebuilding Iraq. These include engineering, education, business and public administration, law and medicine.
This scholarship process will increase every year till we reach the goal of 10,000 students a year for 5 years. In the past year, we have built the administrative infrastructure to take care of those scholarship students and to cater to their needs.
Having, briefly, described the first phase of the Initiative being the scholarship program, however, the Initiative represents much more than sending students to study abroad or introducing new teaching methods. The Iraq Education Initiative is a serious attempt to impact Iraqi society. An important component is to restore free thinking to Iraqis in general and to Iraqi students in particular after years of brutal dictatorship that has severely affected their behavior. In addition we are trying to emphasize these other important values:
* Equal opportunities for all.
* Transparent decisions.
* Analytical skills.
* Ability to make decisions and solve problems.
* Open discussions, free debates and communication.
I can state unequivocally, that since we started this program not even one scholarship has been awarded because of ethnic, sectarian, political connections or any other considerations. The criteria was merit and accomplishments
Now, back to international education, Iraq was known earlier as Mesopotamia or the land between the two rivers. This land is known for many things: the first settlements of humans in history, the invention of the wheel, the invention of writing, the first law code, the Hammurabi Code, and many other achievements, and here I will add one more item to the list, International Education. In the old city of Najaf, the main center of Shia Islam, there is an Islamic university called Al-Hawza. Al-Hawza is one of the oldest continuous center's of learning in the world. It started in the 9th century as a school for Shia theologians who travel to study, theology, logic, philosophy and languages and this has been going on till the present. Their numbers have reached 30,000 plus but during the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, the numbers declined to 700, however, the numbers started climbing again and there are more than 5000 students who are studying their now. Those students come from all over the Muslim world. I consider this as a good example of international education and another proof that international education flourishes when liberty and freedom flourishes.
Now back again, to NAFSA and International Education. Looking at the mission and the values of NAFSA which were written many years ago, I was struck with how much it is
relevant in today’s world. In their stated values and I quote, “international education advances learning and scholarship, builds understanding and respect among different peoples. International Education by its nature is fundamental to fostering peace, security and well-being” and therefore it is diplomacy 101. These words written years ago are much needed in our world today and I commend NAFSA for working for so many years to advance these worthy ideals.
Also, I would like to comment on this year guest speaker Salman Rushdie. I was informed that most Arab and Islamic countries who usually attend the annual NAFSA conference did not attend this year because of this invitation and I was urged not to attend but I thought otherwise. I personally, think their decision was unfortunate and they should have attended and participated fully. However, I would like to make a comment about this important subject.