UNO instrumental in restarting Afghan Fulbright program

BY STEPHEN BUTTRY

WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER

 

Hassina Neekzad’s English is a little rusty.

 

Since learning English at Kabul University in the 1980s, Hassina fled Afghanistan and lived in Iran for 13 years, unable to teach or continue her studies. Now she’s studying English full-time at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, one of the first Fulbright Scholars from Afghanistan in a quarter century.

 

“I hope to be a good teacher,” said Hassina, a language teacher at Herat University in western Afghanistan. “I will get some experiences here that are useful for my country.”

 

Three or four more Fulbright Scholars will follow Hassina to UNO, among about 20 Afghans studying in the United States under the renewed Fulbright program. The Fulbright Visiting Scholars Program brings some 800 faculty and professionals from 130 countries to the United States each year for research and lecturing at American universities.

 

Afghanistan’s participation in the program ended in 1978, shortly before the start of decades of war that have devastated the country.

 

Thomas Gouttierre, director of UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies, directed the Fulbright program in Afghanistan from 1970 to 1974, before coming to UNO. Now UNO manages the Fulbright program in Afghanistan under a $25,000 grant from the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

 

Helping restore the Fulbright program in Afghanistan “is one of the things I’m most proud of in my professional life,” Gouttierre said.

 

UNO developed a test in Dari and Pashto, the primary languages of Afghanistan, as well as an English test and tested 240 Afghan scholars seeking to come to the United States. From the tests, UNO selected 50 for interviews, then passed 20 nominations along to the State Department.

 

Gouttierre estimated that 17 or 18 Afghan Fulbright Scholars will come to the United States this year.

 

Hassina was the first to come to UNO. She arrived in the United States in time to attend a White House dinner for Afghan President Hamid Karzai last month.

 

Some of the other Fulbright Scholars eventually joining her at UNO will stay at the school for their full year in the United States. Others will go to other universities after taking UNO’s intensive English course.

 

After Hassina takes intensive English, she will study language teaching methods at UNO.

 

The contrast between UNO and Herat University is dramatic, Hassina said, speaking mostly in English but sometimes with help from an interpreter. “The past 25 years everything was destroyed.”

 

Her university rents buildings because it has no campus. Students sit on the ground. The school has no computers.

 

The Fulbright program is one of several programs UNO and other branches of the University of Nebraska are operating in Afghanistan or seeking funds for.

 

UNO has concluded its biggest project, publishing books and training teachers for $7.7 million. The program initially called for training 1,500 teachers; UNO trained 4,000. The initial plan was for 9 million textbooks; UNO printed 15 million.

 

The former UNO printing operation has spun off as an Afghan-owned and operated business, the UNO Education Press. It publishes books and calendars, providing jobs for Afghans, Gouttierre said.

In the fall, UNO will bring its fourth group of Afghan teachers to Nebraska for an educational and cultural exchange.

The visit will conclude the second grant UNO has received for the teacher exchanges. The first grant was $200,000, followed by a $600,000 grant. UNO is seeking a third.

 

Dr. Ward Chambers is leading efforts to establish a regular exchange between the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Kabul Medical University. He has made five trips to Kabul, teaching short courses for Afghan doctors.

 

That program has been financed by private donations totaling $52,000, including some of Chambers’ own money.

 

 Chambers hopes to find funding for a formal relationship between the two medical schools, with Nebraska doctors rotating to Kabul for clinical practice.

 

Starting next summer, UNMC faculty will teach a course at Kabul University. Chambers said the medical school needs “everything.”

 

UNO also hopes to obtain federal grants for other projects. It has published a dictionary that gives the English translations of Dari words. Now UNO wants to publish a dictionary translating English into Dari and Pashto.

 

UNO is working with Western Nebraska Community College and the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research Center in Scottsbluff on plans to help the Afghan city of Bamiyan with agricultural and nursing education.

 

Before the Afghan wars began, UNO had a sister relationship with Kabul University. Gouttierre hopes to re-establish that tie.

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