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Building a career and a bridge in Iraq

The Gatton College Graham Office of Career Management is working to transform traditional thinking among Iraqi business students into an edgy, competitive, capitalistic and Westernized mindset, says Career Coach Meredith Boyd. This October, she traveled to support efforts for a new career center at Kufa University in Najaf, Iraq.

“They’re changing into a free market economy, and it’s a slow process. I’m taking specific Western style programming to them in hopes to replicate that in Iraq,” she says.

The University Kentucky is entering year-three of its participation in the Iraq University Linkages Program, Boyd says. According to the Iraq ULP, years of conflict, preceded by decades of nepotism, thwarted the progress of Iraqi universities. Between 2003 and 2010, insurgent groups in Iraq targeted and threatened academics, forcing many to flee. Those who stayed behind were isolated. Among scholars in Iraq today, isolation is one of their deepest concerns, the Iraq ULP says. As a result, Iraqi students are impeded in succeeding globally.

The U.S. Embassy, Baghdad funds the multi-million-dollar Iraq ULP, and a global human development organization called FHI 360 administers it. The program was planned in consultation with the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. It facilitates long-term, bilateral partnerships between U.S. and Iraqi universities, including the development of career centers at Iraqi universities to forge relationships between the public, private and academic sectors. Ultimately, these partnerships are intended to be self-sustaining – capable of producing enduring change, Boyd says.

So the Iraq ULP addresses the needs of Iraqi universities – strengthening their teaching, learning and career development. At the same time, the program allows scholars and academics to resume the prominent roles that they lost, Boyd says. This in turn promotes reconstruction and long-term stability for Iraq.

UK’s participation in Iraq ULP began in July 2010, following a conference in Baghdad attended by faculty members from both UK and Kufa. Boyd’s trip in October was for a workshop held in Erbil, which is in the Kurdish Region. She covered key activities associated with Western-style career centers – everything from offering tips on interviewing skills, to marketing and promoting a career center, to how to create internship programs. Boyd’s presentation was styled so that Iraqis were given questions or scenarios to figure out for themselves. Career center directors and staff from the various institutions in Iraq attended the five-day event.

“This is helping them improve their perspective of working with Westerners and Americans. It’ll change their lives and how they view world politics. I’m most excited about being involved in higher education and rebuilding it in Iraq. The tool that will help citizens and government in Iraq effectively is to teach students how to react and participate in an emerging free market economy,” Boyd says.

One portion of the Iraq ULP included training Iraqi undergraduate students in the intensive Summer English Language Study program. The students were at UK for six weeks, Boyd says.

“The students were great! They provided interesting feedback about how a career center could help them in the future…realizing their changing economy is a slow process. But they are optimistic about Iraq’s future economy and job market,” she says, adding that higher education in Iraq is very different from the American system. “For example, students are tested upon completion and high school and then ranked according to test score. Their university track is determined for them based on testing. Those with highest test scores are placed in medical and science-related fields of study,” she says.

They also expressed that nepotism has largely governed business thinking in Iraq – until now.

“If you ask the potential employers that interest them, they reply that it doesn’t matter the name of the company, because three to four companies are ultimately run by one person in the government. That’s what they’re changing from,” Boyd explains. She adds that as more Western companies infiltrate Iraq, like Apple and Microsoft, the focus is shifting.

“Industries – for example, in petroleum, oil and gas – are coming in with great opportunities. The students were really excited to be at UK and loved the other students and professors and loved doing things on campuses,” Boyd says.

Five Iraqi universities and five U.S. universities participate in the Iraq ULP. They are focusing on: curriculum review, providing online courses and real-time digital video conference instruction, creating career development centers and also include highly selective faculty and student exchanges, Boyd adds. Collaborations focus on petroleum sciences, English, education, engineering, computer sciences and business (among other fields).

Kufa University is UK’s partner. The others are: the University of Basra with Oklahoma State University; the University of Salahdin in Erbil with the University of Cincinnati; the University of Tikrit with Ball State University; and the University of Baghdad with Cleveland State University.

For her part, Boyd is particularly excited about launching career centers at Iraqi universities. She’s excited that UK is moving the way of thinking from the nepotism point of view to an equal opportunity outlook.

“The development of career centers will empower students and provide them the tools and resources necessary to successfully respond to their new economy and democratic society. For me, this idea parallels how I define the overall goals of higher education: preparing citizens that are equipped to adjust, and readjust, to society’s constantly changing circumstances; and citizens who value the connection between diversity, democracy and global learning,” Boyd says.

“Global learning is truly transformational. The interconnectedness and multiple perspectives it provides prepares students to be responsible, productive citizens who value democracy, equity, justice and peace.”