Program brings Iraqi students to UK

By Becca Clemons

Americans may know a thing or two about Iraq as a country, but few get the chance to know its people.

New programs, however, are working to bring people from both nations together, and UK is a common meeting ground.

The Iraq Education Initiative brings Iraqi students to study in the U.S. at schools like UK. Currently, seven students at UK are here through this program.

“To study in the U.S. was a dream for me,” Zana Majeed, a biology student working on his Ph.D., said.

Majeed, from Erbil, Iraq, was drawn to UK’s biology department because it was interested in him — he was contacted by the school after applying through IEI, which sponsors Iraqi students to study in the U.S. as part of a government-led education reform.

The goals of the program include providing students with an education that they can use toward their home country’s redevelopment when they return to Iraq, Pat Bond, senior assistant dean of the UK Graduate School, said.

Bond said students arrive here with various levels of English competency, and they participate in English as a Second Language classes to improve their skills before beginning their academic studies at UK.

UK became involved with the IEI when Bond traveled to Baghdad and met with about 500 Iraqi students.

The first group of students participating in the initiative arrived in Lexington in August.

“These are our pioneers,” Bond said. She wants to bring more Iraqi students to UK in the coming years.

Osamah Mahmood is another student from this initial group.

He will study for a master’s degree in civil engineering at UK once he finishes ESL classes.

Bond said the students demonstrate a tremendous amount of courage by choosing to study halfway across the world, in light of the lingual and cultural barriers.

“Life here is simple,” Mahmood said. He was surprised to learn that not all Americans are like the ones in movies, in cities like Los Angeles and New York, and the normalcy of people in Lexington helped ease the culture shock.

“People here are very nice and helpful,” he said. The students even said Bond is like a mom to them.

Academic support has also made the students feel welcome in a new environment.

“Our professors want to talk to students,” Graduate School Admissions Officer Kathy Ice-Wedding said. “They really want to make a personal connection (with students).”

The students cite many benefits from coming to study in the U.S., not all of them strictly academic.

Majeed said he has had unique opportunities to connect with other UK students, such as visiting with freshmen in a UK 101 class.

“Traveling will open your mind,” Majeed said, adding that learning about foreign people, language and culture in the U.S. has changed his world perspective.

Center for ESL Director Liga Abolins said ESL classes include students from all over the world.

“I met for the first time in my life people from China, Japan, South Korea, (and) Poland,” Mahmood said, adding that he had not yet before had the chance to meet people from around the globe.

He said he liked the “cultural pluralism” and diversity in the U.S., as well as the academic life.

Mahmood has even found time to get involved on campus, having participated in the World’s Largest Water Balloon Fight in August.

Majeed said he likes the availability of resources at UK that he uses in his studies.

“When I went to the biology department, I was very hopeful to do new research,” he said, “because, in our country, it’s not easy to get new instruments.”

Bond added that Iraqi professors have done a very good job with the materials they have, even though many are outdated.

UK is also part of a state department grant that will allow six faculty members from Iraqi universities to come to UK and “catch up,” Abolins said.

The first two professors will arrived in March.

“The University of Kentucky is working on all fronts,” Abolins said.

Bond hopes that both nations can benefit from the educational exchange.

“I think it’s a very exciting move for the university to be involved in,” she said. “It’s a chance to expose our students to the real change makers in Iraq.”

“What’s important to me is that we do this well.”