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At American U. of Afghanistan, a Day of Mourning, and a Renewed Sense of Mission

The following is by C. Michael Smith, president of the American University of Afghanistan.
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A memorial service was held on Sunday to honor two employees of the American U. of Afghanistan who were killed in Kabul.

On Sunday, the American University of Afghanistan held a memorial service for Alexis (Lexie) Kamerman and Alexandros Petersen, whom the university lost one week ago in an attack on a popular Kabul restaurant. The attack was notable for its brutality, killing 19 other foreign workers in addition to our colleagues. Lexie had finished six months in country working in our student-affairs office and knew the country and its aspiring students well. Alex, a noted Central Asia scholar and rising star in his field, had landed just four days earlier to assume a new job with the university.

How does a university—an institution inherently designed to promote tolerance, openness, and respectful debate—respond to such tragedy? What steps does it take at the day-to-day level to ensure the safety of its staff, faculty, and students? And how do such steps affect the overall mission of a place of learning carefully constructed from its first day to be a beacon and symbol of a more positive Afghanistan?

As president of this university for the past four years, I’ve found there are no clear answers to such questions. It is the darker side of pioneering something as ambitious as an American-style university in Afghanistan, a country that has become known largely for a perceived violent anti-intellectualism and astonishing resistance to almost all new ideas.

And yet the success we have enjoyed since opening our doors, in 2006, demonstrates the power of the message we convey to students from across the country: Here things are a little bit different. Here you will be surrounded and embraced by a diverse, global, and highly credentialed faculty that cares about you and seeks to give you the tools by which you can bring demonstrable change to your country. We deeply respect your culture and your beliefs, and are here to enable you to become a powerful agent of change in your country.

We have achieved this through a combination of grit and determination mixed with a strong sense of community and fraternity. Sadly, the university faculty and staff are no strangers to violence. They know well the subtle stress that comes with living in and traveling around a city that is periodically targeted by extremists seeking to make headlines. And yet the university has never had a professor resign in direct connection to one of these attacks, and until last week was fortunate enough to have escaped the violence unscathed. Part of this is testament to the strength of our security office, which works tirelessly to keep our campus safe while balancing security restrictions against the need for an environment conducive to learning.

The bigger key to our success, however, is our community of faculty and staff, both international and national. I won’t paint an overly rosy picture; at times, we, like any higher-education institution, have serious disagreements about fundamental issues. But while we debate in conference rooms, our campus is united in its concern for our students and their well-being. We are completely committed to their advancement and, through them, to the creation of a more peaceful, tolerant, and inclusive Afghanistan.

We know that this is not something that is achieved overnight and that will not come easily. Yet our faculty continue to return each semester to turn on the lights, open the classrooms, and instruct Afghanistan’s brightest and most promising students on subjects that include computer science, economics, advanced mathematics, political science, and law. That the majority of our current professors and staff have been on campus for more than three years speaks volumes about their commitment.

In recognition of that commitment, we honored the lives of Lexie and Alex on Sunday, the same day that classes for our spring semester commenced. The entire campus community—hundreds of Afghan students, staff, and faculty standing side by side their international staff and faculty colleagues—came together to mourn their lost friends, who came to Afghanistan to work with them and make a demonstrable difference. And we will continue to carry out our mission to make Afghanistan a better place by educating its most intelligent students. It is what Lexie and Alex would have wanted.

And it is this sense of purpose and responsibility that will enable to the university to weather any storm and move forward into the post-2014 Afghanistan from a position of strength, knowing that our work is more valuable than ever.

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