The first Iraqi students taking part in an ambitious new scholarship program financed by their government will soon be arriving in the United States, where they will be enrolled at universities throughout the country.
The program, the Iraq Education Initiative, is intended to help rebuild Iraq's once-renowned higher-education system by providing study opportunities at universities in the United States and Britain—and eventually Australia, Canada, France, and Japan—to men and women who will then return home and take part in their country's resurgence.
The Iraqi government has allocated around $55-million for the program's first year, during which some 600 students are expected to take part—half in the United States and half in Britain. At last count, more than 200 students have been admitted to programs at 22 American institutions, including the University of Iowa, the University of Kansas, Oregon State University, West Virginia University, and campuses of the University System of Ohio.
An additional 310 applications are pending. Of the admitted students, most are graduate students, with master's-degree students forming the largest contingent, said Zuhair A.G. Humadi, executive director of Iraq's Higher Committee for Education Development, which is administering the program. In comparison, there were only 359 Iraqis studying in the United States in 2008-9.
The Academy for Educational Development, a nonprofit organization focused on international education, health, and development, is helping to run the program in the United States. The American organization is tracking admissions and has asked participating universities to expedite admissions procedures for the Iraqi students. From an inaugural group of 22 colleges, all of which sent representatives to visit Iraq, more than 240 American institutions have become members of the American Universities Iraq Consortium.
The University System of Ohio is the only statewide system taking part in the program, and six of its 14 universities have agreed to allow the Iraqi students to pay in-state tuition rates.
The Ohio system expects to enroll as much as a third of the initial group of Iraqis, said its chancellor, Eric D. Fingerhut, and he has been working with each of the institutions in the system to determine whether it is able to accommodate the Iraqi government's request for in-state tuition.
Administrators of colleges taking part in the program say that the applications they are receiving are from highly qualified students. The University of Iowa has admitted nine graduate students to programs including chemical, civil, computer, and electrical engineering; geosciences; and pharmacology, and more students are expected to be admitted for the academic year that begins in August, said Scott E. King, director of the university's Office of International Students and Scholars.
"Our graduate directors are very, very excited," he said, adding that "generally about 20 percent of international graduate applicants are admitted, and we're running over 50 percent with these students." The students' only weak spot is their English-language skills, he said, "and we're providing the training so they get that ability."
Carla Coppi, interim director of the office of international programs and services at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, said that the 21 graduate students the university has admitted so far have such "outstanding dossiers" that department heads are predicting that they "are going to be some of our upper-echelon students."
The 20 men and a single female student have been admitted to a range of programs, including political science, English, and engineering, but will all spend their first weeks in Illinois studying full time at the university's English-language institute.
Sandra MacDonald-Davis, director of the Center for Academic Partnerships at the Academy for Educational Development, said that all of the universities participating in the program will provide English training, either on the campus or nearby.
The universities are offering provisional admission to the Iraqi students contingent on their becoming proficient enough in English to enroll in their programs. The students have up to a year to meet the required fluency standards. "They have to eventually meet the admissions requirements of any other student, but they have the time to get there," she said.
Help From the U.S. Embassy
In the past, because of security restrictions at the American Embassy in Baghdad, Iraqi students admitted to American universities had to travel to other countries in the region for their visa applications to be processed. But the embassy, which has now been handling student-visa applications for nearly two years, has processed the scholarship students' visas in a relatively speedy two to three weeks, said Mr. Humadi. As of last week, more than 80 students had received their visas.
The students are being given exchange visitor, or nonimmigrant, J visas, rather than student F visas, meaning that when they finish their study programs in the United States, they will not be able to remain for longer than a month. It would also be difficult for them to apply for residency or green-card status. The provision is intended to help ensure that the students "come back to Iraq and serve the people who sent them on these scholarships," said Mr. Humadi.
The program was also designed to ensure participation by students from all of Iraq's provinces. By the application deadline of August 31 last year, more than 6,000 applications had been received, from which 800 finalists were selected based on academic merit.
The students were brought to Baghdad from all over Iraq, and "we had a personal interview with each one of them," said Mr. Humadi. "It was really a feat."
Although there were no official gender quotas, the program organizers also sought significant participation from women, and they comprise about 30 percent of the selected students, Mr. Humadi said.
The scholarships cover not just tuition and living expenses, but also medical insurance, books, travel costs for attending conferences and seminars, and even a clothing allowance.
Support is provided for the spouses and children of students, too. The Iraqi government is allocating even more to the program for next year, with around $70-million now planned for 2011, said Mr. Humadi.
Part of that money will go toward establishing an English-language institute in Baghdad, where students whose English is not fluent enough to allow them to pursue their studies in the American programs to which they were admitted can spend an academic year honing their linguistic skills.
Mr. Humadi, who earned a doctorate in political science at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and taught there for several years, has been the driving force behind the Iraq Education Initiative. He will be honored at this week's annual conference of Nafsa: Association of International Educators with the Cassandra Pyle Award for Leadership and Collaboration in International Education and Exchange.