An Exchange We Can Believe in

By J.P. Schnapper-Casteras
Monday, October 5, 2009

IRBIL, Iraq -- Speaking at Cairo University in June, President Obama pledged to "expand exchange programs and increase scholarships, like the one that brought my father to America." Nowhere is that change more urgently needed than in providing educational opportunities in Iraq.

Studying abroad has been a formative experience for the Iraqi leaders who have done it, and the experience can yield long-term benefits for economic development, public diplomacy, and the struggle for hearts and minds. Despite the enormous time and effort that have been invested in establishing long-term stability and democracy in Iraq, only a few dozen Iraqis are able to study in the United States each year. By comparison, consider that during the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union exchanged 50,000 citizens over 30 years, producing more educated students and some of the most pro-Western and pro-democracy Soviet scholars and scientists.

Young men and women in Iraq are hungry for an opportunity to study in the United States. In August I visited Salahaddin University in northern Iraq, where numerous students approached me in 121-degree heat to talk at length about their dreams of studying in America. One father even offered to sell his home to fund his son's education in the States. Four years ago, during the height of the sectarian civil war in Iraq, a group of Iraqi undergraduates twice braved the treacherous roads from Iraq to Jordan to participate in a Stanford University exchange program that I was running.

Iraqi officials understand the importance of enabling their students to study in the United States. Parliament has pledged $1 billion to fund the education of 50,000 Iraqi students overseas, and several Kurdish officials told me this summer that they would help finance new scholarships and exchanges. But they need help from the United States to make this possible.

President Obama and Congress should take three steps to expand educational exchanges with Iraq:

-- Prioritize and facilitate visas for Iraqi students. Today, Iraqis must travel to Baghdad or neighboring countries, at great personal risk and cost, to apply for a visa. And there are too many sad stories of visas inexplicably delayed or otherwise gone awry. Washington should let students complete parts of their visa application at U.S. facilities outside Baghdad, in safer parts of the country.

-- Collaborate with a broader coalition of American universities to reduce tuition for Iraqi students. The State Department also should partner with Iraqi nongovernmental organizations, social entrepreneurs and private colleges to meet the soaring demand for English-language instruction and to independently screen scholarship applicants.

With those two reforms, 200 more Iraqi students would immediately be ready to study in America, says Ahmed Dezaye, director of cultural relations for the Kurdistan Regional Government Ministry of Higher Education. While it may still be easier to recruit and process students from majority-Kurdish provinces than other, more volatile, areas, this would be a good start.

-- Support the American University of Iraq, which has received less than $10 million from Washington though the government has spent billions on other projects. That university, in Sulaymaniyah, has already become one of a handful of liberal arts colleges in the region and attracted widespread student interest. With more funds, it could draw more American educators and students to safe parts of northern Iraq to teach English and other subjects as well as to learn about Iraqi history and culture.

Countless Iraqi students yearn for the chance to study a broad range of subjects in the United States and apply what they have learned back home. Ultimately, investing in education here can shape America's legacy in Iraq by giving young Iraqis new opportunities, perspectives -- and perhaps even some measure of hope.

The writer, a graduate of Stanford Law School and former fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation, founded the Stanford-Iraq Student Exchange.

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