ASU helps reform higher education in Kurdistan

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The Appalachian Online

Tommy Culkin

Over the past seven years, Appalachian State University has worked to help reform the education system in northern Iraq, specifically the region of Kurdistan. Appalachian State has since developed a continued partnership with Salahaddin University, which looks to continue into the future.

The partnership began in 2009, when the Ministry of Higher Education in northern Iraq contacted Appalachian State because they wanted to switch their education model from a European model to an American model of higher education.

The Ministry of Higher Education wanted to update their curriculum and course structure, and contacted Sara Zimmerman, a professor in the Reich College of Education, to come to Kurdistan and provide assistance to the local universities.

Zimmerman initially traveled to Kurdistan in 2009 with former professor Melanie Greene after Appalachian State received a $231,427 grant from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in Kurdistan and the U.S. Department of State.

“They wanted to get away from that ‘lecture all semester, and then give a final exam’ typical model,” Zimmerman said. “Instead, they wanted to embrace that more formative model that we have, where students give lots of work, and [professors] help guide them and train them so it’s not just one grade, but many grades. When we got there, we identified other problems, like there was no specified curriculum that they were teaching.”

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Jesse Lutabingwa, the associate vice chancellor for International Education and Development and the chief grant writer, said it was a rewarding experience to provide assistance to the universities in Kurdish Iraq.

“We have developed a strong reputation here [at Appalachian State],” Lutabingwa said. “So we’ve got to bring that strength to what they want to offer over there.”

Zimmerman said that she and Greene worked with seven universities in Kurdistan to help them revise their curricula and update instructional strategies based on the schools’ individual needs.

“The experience was a learning one for us just as much as it was for them, I think,” Zimmerman said. “We learned how other cultures treat higher education, and I think it helped us all, certainly myself, become more global citizens.”

Later that year, more Appalachian State professors from the Reich College of Education, as well as science professors, went over to Kurdistan to help improve their science programs, and specifically their school of medicine.

Shortly thereafter, two professors from Salahaddin University in northern Iraq came to Appalachian State and observed some professors in the classroom.

Zimmerman said one of the things that the Salahaddin professors brought back to Iraq was the idea of student participation.

“I think it surprised them that students are allowed to question and have their own opinions,” Zimmerman said. “Yes, they’d read the information and they could speak to the theory, but they could also question and challenge it.”

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Among instructional strategies that the Salahaddin professors picked up were group projects, teacher evaluations and more assessments throughout the semester.

Since 2009, Appalachian State has formed a partnership with Salahaddin. Last year, Appalachian State sent a small library of books related to teaching methods to Salahaddin.

In the Fall 2015 semester, Fatimah Hasan, an English professor at Salahaddin, contacted Zimmerman about returning to Kurdistan to help them create a debate course.

“One of the aims of curricula development at Salahaddin University is to prepare and train graduates to have skills of critical thinking, debating, public speaking and to respect different points of view,” Hasan wrote in her grant application.

Zimmerman was supposed to travel to Salahaddin in January, but because of current foreign policies, she was unable to go. However, she hopes to visit soon.

Zimmerman believes that forming partnerships like the one with Salahaddin is important to create a globalized world.

“Appalachian State is good at saying that we believe in globalization, and I think that this is an excellent example of us actually working with other people in the world,” Zimmerman said. “We all have so much in common, and I think it’s important that we realize that.”

Story by Tommy Culkin, Senior News Reporter