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American University takes root in northern Iraq

Tucked away in the heart of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, a U.S. style university with bold plans to attract the country's top talent has quickly found a following among young Iraqis.
Image: Classroom at American University in Iraq
Beth Newton, right, teaches an English course at the American University in Iraq in Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles northeast of Baghdad, Iraq, on Tuesday, Oct. 28.Yahya Ahmed / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tucked away in the heart of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, a U.S. style university with bold plans to attract the country's top talent has quickly found a following among young Iraqis.

The American University in Iraq, which threw open its doors to students last January, has seen its enrollment soar almost sixfold in its second academic year.

"There is incredible demand for this kind of thing," said Joshua Mitchell, the school's chancellor. "Frankly, our limitation right now is space."

The jump in enrollment — from 48 last year to 256 this year — left the university scrambling to hire extra teachers, throw up temporary buildings to house more classrooms and find dormitories to accommodate the influx of students.

The university has already started construction on a sprawling new campus with five quads containing dormitories and classrooms near the Sulaimaniyah airport.

Work began last January on the site's administrative building and Mitchell said the university hopes to push forward with the rest of the construction as funds allow.

The U.S. government has pledged $10 million to build a power plant to provide electricity to the university's new campus but another $500 million is needed to complete the full project, Mitchell said.

That would allow the school to reach its goal of boosting enrollment to some 10,000 students in 10 to 15 years.

"There's no reason we can't do it," Mitchell said. "If they (Iraqis) can get back on track, they can again be one of the shining lights of the Middle East and higher education is going to be key to this."

Focus on liberal arts, job skills
The school's concentration on American-style liberal arts education and future job skills already has lured talented young Iraqis tired of the country's state-funded universities with their rote learning.

"The students at state university have to memorize the curriculum but here it is different. We study some subjects outside the curriculum. These are really interesting studies that push you to work hard," said Deaa Delawar, a 19-year-old studying business.

Arean Delshad wanted to study abroad but opted for Sulaimaniyah instead.

"Studies at the American University are what I expected — serious and advanced," said Delshad, also 19. "My father has many contracting companies and I want to study business administration because this university gives me a chance to learn more and build my future."

The school was founded in late 2007 with the blessing of Iraq's new political elite — including President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite Muslim — and offered its first classes in January.

Effort to develop the private sector
All the classes are taught in English by Western professors and students can earn a four-year bachelor's degrees in business, computer science or international studies. A degree in petroleum engineering is planned.

The curriculum reflects the school's goal of providing young Iraqis with skills that aim to help the country rebuild from the destruction of the 2003 U.S.-led war and the ensuing sectarian violence.

"We're deliberately setting about to help develop the private sector, and that's why business and (information technology) are among our primary offerings," Mitchell said. "Iraq is going to need a private sector and entrepreneurial class."

Such an education, however, comes at a price. Annual tuition runs around $10,000 a year — a huge amount for average Iraqis — although the school has set up a generous financial aid system to help students in need.

Beirut and Cairo are also home to institutions called the American University, but none of the three universities in the Middle East with that name are related.

Location chosen for security
Baghdad — with its rich history as an intellectual hub in the Arab world — would seem to have been the most obvious choice for such a school in Iraq. But Sulaimaniyah, a city of 730,000 in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains some 160 miles northeast of Baghdad, has something the Iraqi capital has not provided for years — security.

"The reason Kurdistan was chosen is because it's safe," said Gordon Anderson, the school's rector. "It would not be possible to have started the university in Baghdad."

However, the university hopes to eventually establish campuses in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra.

"We want to grow, but there's the old saying 'you've got to learn to walk before you run,' and that's what we're trying to do," Anderson said.

"We want to establish a good solid foundation, develop a reputation not only in Kurdistan and Iraq, but in the Middle East. And then we can begin to explore these other venues for campuses."