Bring Rifles and Books: College on a U.S. Base in Baghdad

By Ernesto Londoño and Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 5, 2009

BAGHDAD -- It makes for a strange college campus: Cement blast walls, helicopters roaring overhead, packs of wild dogs howling, the risk of mortar and rocket attacks. Faculty keep Kevlar flak jackets at the ready. Students bring their rifles to class and leave them on the floor with the barrel pointing toward the front of the room.

In November, University of Maryland University College became the first U.S. college to begin offering classes on the ground in Iraq, soon joined by a school from Texas. It is a reflection of the greater stability in Iraq, as violence has dropped, and of the number of American troops leaving small urban outposts for large bases where the courses are taught.

The classes, for service members only, offer students a sense of normalcy, a place where a professor calls them by their first name, where classmates debate ideas openly, where academic discussions often encompass the lives they lead in Iraq.

On a recent Sunday morning, several soldiers carrying rifles and textbooks made their way to a theater built for Saddam Hussein. Inside, professor Lisa Brooks was teaching the sleep-deprived service members about sleep and dreams.

A voice on the Camp Victory loudspeaker interrupted: "Attention, please. There will be a controlled detonation in 10 minutes."

Staff Sgt. Traci Williams had finished her 12-hour shift at 4 a.m., and the class started at 9 a.m. But she didn't think twice about taking it; she wanted to learn about sleep because she has suffered from insomnia ever since a roadside bomb struck her convoy in Afghanistan in 2006. Other classes will teach soldiers about child psychology, at the request of some deployed parents, and about substance abuse.

UMUC, part of the public university system of Maryland, has been offering courses on military bases in Europe and Asia for more than 50 years. Faculty teach in Afghanistan and other potentially dangerous sites -- professors have reported shots being fired at their helicopter in Afghanistan -- but no one has ever been hurt, said Greg von Lehmen, acting provost for UMUC.

In Iraq, seven UMUC professors and four staff members work at two locations, with about 300 students taking accelerated college classes such as American government, math, cultural anthropology and macroeconomics. Students can earn two-year, four-year and master's degrees. The school is opening three other sites and plans to keep expanding during its five-year contract, von Lehmen said.

Even on a protected military base, college in a war zone has a makeshift, edgy feel. UMUC faculty teach wherever they can find space. At Victory, a network of bases near Baghdad International Airport that has served as the U.S. military's nerve center in Iraq since 2003, classes have been held in a tent, the back of a chapel and a conference room built in Hussein's former stable for camels and horses.

Faculty live in temporary military housing, with a chilly walk outside to the bathrooms at night. They marvel over the remnants of Hussein's regime, the palaces filled with chandeliers and artwork, the artificial lakes.

Despite the hardships, university officials said they had no trouble finding faculty to teach in Iraq. Some people volunteer for financial reasons. "You're not paying for your room, for food, so you can pocket everything you make down here," said Stacey Tate, a field representative, adding that she left her home at UMUC's site in Heidelberg, Germany, for a change of pace and the challenge of launching a program from scratch. Brooks, an associate professor who grew up moving from place to place with her military family, said she liked the idea of helping service members.

As soon as they began unpacking, Brooks said, people stopped in to thank them and shake their hands.

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