Sunday, December 5, 2010

Back to School

Cattle grazing just outside the main gates
of Shaikh Zayed University

The sprawling malls, the seemingly endless lectures, Harry’s Chocolate Shop, calculus (3x for this guy), and lest we forget: Breakfast Club.  For all of you non-Boilermakers reading, these are just a few of my favorite and not so favorite things back on the beautiful campus I called home for six years (on and off, and yes- only for a BS).

3-19th ADT members survey a previously installed drip
irrigation system
Earlier this week I had an opportunity to visit another institution of higher education- Shaikh Zayed University. I couldn’t help but laugh as I envisioned our convoy of six 30,000 lb MRAP’s pulling onto a college campus back in the states and the outcry that would have immediately followed. As we departed the mammoth, up-armored vehicles we loaded up our backpacks and headed for main gate.  

Students were visible from hundreds of yards away, tiny dots throughout the horizon of the surrounding hills. Just as they would be back in South Bend, Ind., students were burrowed into their books as they crammed last minute bits of knowledge in before the coming week’s final examinations were to take place. The campus sits in a bowl of the hills in the surrounding area, making for a beautiful view in almost every direction imaginable.  

Surrounding hills provide an isolated spot to study for some students
Our mission today was two fold: first to finish delivery on several laptop computers that we were providing to the agricultural faculty and secondly to discuss an agricultural education partnership between our team and the university. One lesson you learn quite quickly here is to never give the impression that you are handing anything out. As I’ve previously mentioned, the children here have nothing and have literally been run over by vehicles in convoys as they scavenge for a small piece of candy. For this reason, we strategically removed the laptops from their obvious “Dell” tattooed boxes and placed a few laptops each within our camouflaged backpacks.

Another interesting site to me was that of watching a dozen or so armed troops being welcomed with open arms into the university by the chancellor. While advocacy groups back in the states are fighting for the right to carry a weapon on a college campus, we had just been welcomed by invitation onto a campus by the chancellor while carrying two weapons a piece.

Gulley providing a little taste of Indiana
As we began our meeting with the chancellor, the two educators within our team took the lead. The chancellor’s office was actually quite large and probably the nicest space I’ve been in here in the province. There was even a separate sitting area to allow for multiple conversations to take place simultaneously. One of the educators, Major Jeremy Gulley who serves as a high school principal in NE Indiana, broke the ice a bit as he was the one offering refreshments. Apparently his mother had sent cookies for him to share with some of the Afghans he met, whom better to share with than a fellow educator? The chancellor was very receptive of this good-will gesture and even made a comment how a mother’s love is the same all around the globe.

My primary role on the mission was that of a public affairs capacity, so after ensuring I had taken sufficient photographs I was free to listen in on one of the many conversations taking place while enjoying a piping hot glass of chai.
The group of educators who were to receive the computers came in shortly after we had initiated our meeting with the chancellor. They sat quietly along an isolated row of seating, only speaking when spoken too but listening ever so intently and nearly drooling at the site of their new laptops. Christmas came early for this batch of instructors, they couldn’t have been happier as we finalized our laptop arrangement.  

Ken Heldenfels w/ the State Dept, Shane Robbins, our interpretor, and
Major Jeremy Gulley meet with the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor
As we closed the meeting, the chancellor stressed again how important the ADT concept is to his university while also thanking us for our visit. We coordinated some follow-up training opportunities in the future and set some short term goals for our work together in the ag education program. 

One of the top areas of interest in the development effort here in Afghanistan is that of the youth. After hearing statistics like the fact that 60% of the Afghan population is under 25 years of age, you start to understand the necessity of the youth having a positive impression of coalition forces.

As the university continues to receive support both materially and intellectually from our team, they will continue to remind their students of the risks we take to provide them with educational tools. Each student we have a chance to work with is one more future leader of Afghanistan that will be able to speak on a positive experience he/she has had with an Agribusiness Development Team and most importantly their Agricultural Extension Agent.  And after all, isn't that why we’re here???    

Students watch from atop their dorms as the SZU chancellor greets members of the 3-19th ADT

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