Ball State offers higher-ed aid to Iraq, Afghanistan

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Ball State University is making a name for itself in countries one might least expect.

The Muncie institution’s upstart Rinker Center for International Programs, founded just about a year ago, already has a significant presence in hot spots Iraq and Afghanistan and soon will in Libya, as well.

Its efforts include training administrators, teaching students, providing curriculum development, and establishing career centers at colleges in the two countries in which U.S. involvement largely has been overshadowed by its military occupation.

Besides providing a gesture of good will, Ball State should benefit in other ways, said Ken Holland, dean of BSU’s international programs, who arrived on campus in 2008 from Kansas State University.

Above all, the college of 19,500 is hoping to establish name recognition overseas to add more of an international flavor. Ball State so far has 12 students enrolled from Afghanistan and two from Uzbekistan.

Ball State also has applied for a Fulbright grant from the U.S. Department of State to bring visiting professors from Iraq to provide them research opportunities.

“When you’re active in a country, the word spreads,” Holland said. “Afghan families who want to send their kids to the United States know about Ball State and feel comfortable about it.”

Holland returned from a week-long trip to Afghanistan on Dec. 20 and traveled to the war-torn country six times in 2010, sometimes taking as many as six colleagues with him.

“We were all over Afghan media,” he said, “when I took two professors in November.”

All told, Holland has taken 28 trips to Iraq and Afghanistan and insists he’s never felt in danger. His contingent receives support from the U.S. embassy in the two countries and, if necessary, has access to military protection.

Ball State is in Iraq and Afghanistan with the aid of four $1 million grants from the U.S. Department of State.

One is enabling BSU to help the Iraqi government establish an English-language institute in Baghdad at a former U.S. military base to prepare scholarship recipients to study at U.S. colleges.

Language has been a major barrier, as their English proficiency is low, Holland said. The aim of the grant is to hire full-time English teachers to work with foreign faculty who then can better communicate with BSU professors and also can teach English to their students.

The other grant that targeted Iraq allowed a group of BSU accounting, computer science and English professors to improve Tikrit University’s curriculum and teaching techniques. And in Muncie, BSU professors actually teach Iraqi students the three subjects via videoconferencing.

In Afghanistan, Ball State faculty are helping Shaikh Zayed University in Khost to improve its journalism program by developing a media operations center, built by the U.S. State Department, which will include radio and television stations, as well as a printing press.

Ball State professors also are helping Kanduhar University launch an entrepreneurship program, which would be Afghanistan’s first, in addition to a career center and an English-language institute.

BSU’s entrepreneurship program consistently ranks among the top 10 in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Its international efforts connect Hoosiers to places where some of the most important global issues are occurring, said Diane Thomas, president and CEO of the International Center in Indianapolis.

“By fostering greater collaboration on issues of higher education,” she said, “the center strengthens Indiana’s global connections and plays an important role serving as a crossroads in a globalized world.”

Ball State certainly is not the first university to contribute to higher education programs overseas. But the university feels as though it’s carved a niche in the Middle East.

“One of the most common questions I get is, ‘Are we making progress?’” Holland said. “And the answer I always give is, yes. I’ve seen remarkable progress in the educational sector.”

Afghanistan has experienced an educational resurgence during the past 10 years, with 19 public universities enrolling about 120,000 students.

Three million Afghan girls now attend school, which was forbidden under Taliban rule. Holland hopes some eventually might pursue a degree at Ball State.

Besides Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, Ball State has a presence in the more stable countries of Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and India, where it provides educational workshops.

The application process to receive funding from the State Department is highly competitive, said Holland, noting that BSU has gone head-to-head with in-state rivals Indiana and Purdue universities, both of which have had international programs for years.

“We’re starting to give them a run for their money,” he said, “but there’s plenty of money to go around.”•

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