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“Meeting students at the University of Baghdad was just like meeting students anywhere,” says Melodye Wehrung MC/MPA 1997, who in January travelled to Iraq to help expand capacity at the University of Baghdad’s College of Management and Economics. “They seemed very similar to American students,” she adds, describing them as eager to learn, dedicated to their studies, and respectful of their professors. During seven days in the city, Wehrung would come to know the diverse community in and around the university.
This trip—the first of several in the next year and a half—was sponsored by USAID’s Iraq financial development unit. Wehrung went to the war-torn nation as part of a team from Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, where she works as executive director for social equity. Their goal is to help Iraqis rebuild business and management education at the country’s premier university.
“Iraqis are eager to increase their participation in the global economy,” she says. “They have a can-do spirit and want to be able to take care of themselves well.” Her initial visit included meetings with Musa Al-Musawi, the university’s president, Abdul Jabbar, the dean of the business college, and various faculty members. Discussions centered on the college’s curricular needs and helping to determine what resources faculty and administrators required to move the university back to regional prominence.
“Infrastructure is a problem,” says Wehrung. “They’re very interested in technology and making use of computers and the Internet, but when the electricity goes out everything goes down. They’re making progress, but it’s slow.” The library, for example, was damaged in the war, with books knocked off the shelves and covered in desert sand. “They’re dusting off the university, literally and figuratively,” she says.
Wehrung says her Kennedy School education was crucial in helping her work with individuals from different backgrounds with different perspectives. “The training in becoming an effective American and global citizen was invaluable, as were the relationships I developed with individuals from the Middle East when I was at the Kennedy School,” she says.
USAID coordinated all the logistics of her trip, from transportation to security. Despite the obvious dangers, Wehrung was more excited than nervous about her first visit to Baghdad. “We had a sense that we’re on a mission to be helpful. We did travel with very high security—bulletproof vests and cars and so forth—but we felt very secure in our compound.” She and her team did not stay in the international Green Zone but in a private complex surrounded by blast-proof walls. Although trips were carefully orchestrated days in advance, information on the ground sometimes changed their plans, requiring University of Baghdad officials to come to their compound in lieu of campus visits.
Wehrung’s interests include enhancing outcomes through international and domestic diversity—the idea that a variety of perspectives will generate better solutions in the business community than an individual limited to his or her own experiences. Wehrung says her work in Iraq will bring together differences in gender, religion, and ethnicity to improve the University of Baghdad. “Collective wisdom is greater than any single person,” she says.
Wehrung is optimistic. “The Iraqis I met were very open and very proud of their university, and rightly so. But of course there’s been lots of devastation.” She is hopeful that she, her Shippensburg partners, and her newfound Iraqi colleagues can bring transformative change to the University of Baghdad.