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By Solstice graduate Beth Richards.

It’s been a little awkward, the past few weeks. We’re not quite through the middle of the semester where I teach at the University of Hartford, but everyone is thinking ahead. Unsuspecting friends ask, “So, what are your plans for the break?” And they’re clearly expecting something like, “Oh, visit my folks in Florida” or “Just have some time off.” I can tell from their expressions they are not prepared for my answer, which is, “If all goes according to plan, I’ll be working in Afghanistan.”

“For the holidays?” they say. And then (after a deep breath): “Why?”

The answer to question 1 is this: The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan does not celebrate Christmas. Thus that day, Thursday, December 25, will be a regular work day. I should have the day off on the 26th, as it’s Friday, though not because it’s Boxing Day or the beginning of Kwanzaa.

Here’s the answer to question 2. This will be my third trip to Afghanistan, and it is part of the ongoing partnerships between my university and universities in Afghanistan. The first two trips focused on Herat University, which is in the westernmost province next to the Iran border. In this partnership, I worked closely with my University of Hartford colleague, Saleh Keshawarz, who is a professor of civil and environmental engineering (and a Kabul native). He worked with Herat faculty to revise engineering curriculum and I worked with engineering and English faculty on the “English for Engineers” program, developing texts and curriculum to increase English fluency (Herat’s engineering program uses textbooks written in English).

This grant is officially titled “Strengthening the Capacity of Private Universities in Northern Afghanistan to Provide Quality Education,” and it is funded by the U.S. State Department through the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. For this partnership, Prof. Keshawarz and I will be working close to Afghanistan’s long border with the Russian republics (all those “stans”). Private universities are growing in number and size in many provinces. We hope that our experience working with Herat University will allow us to provide useful assistance to our Northern Afghanistan colleagues in academic areas (curriculum sequencing, for example) as well as in administrative areas (department or program governance best practices, for example). Our overarching goal is for all of the private universities throughout the northern provinces to be aligned with Afghanistan Ministry of Higher Education standards. After that, it is possible to begin working toward these universities having parity with international standards. That won’t happen right away, of course, but this two-year partnership is a first step.

Christmas in Afghanistan. It does sound a little…strange. But I will be partnering with educators who work with tremendous integrity under conditions that would make most people in the United States run the other way. These teachers give their time and effort generously to their students, despite their pay being decidedly not-generous. They are gracious and patient, and in the long run they have taught me much more than I will ever teach them.

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