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Project Aims to Bring Iraqi Students to U.S. Colleges

Among the casualties of the war in Iraq have been students and academics. Hundreds of professors have been killed, and sectarian violence has kept thousands of students from going to local universities.

The Iraqi Student Project, a program founded last year by educators in the United States and Syria, is now working to relocate some of those Iraqi students to American colleges. However, even the idea of bringing in a handful of these students has met with some resistance.

One of the students chosen for the program, Randa Adil, 20, wants to study architectural engineering. She was ready to start classes at Baghdad's Al-Nahrain University but fled Iraq with her mother and siblings when the situation got too dangerous. She's now in Syria.


"I have two friends killed from the [car] bombs. I'm so sorry for them and for their families. And I see that from the news, that the situation is still dangerous, so I can't go back," she says. "I have my dad, I have my friends there, my life, my everything."

Adil says she can't afford schools in Damascus and is hoping to earn her degree in America.

If she aces her F-1 student visa interview and application process, she's expected to attend St. Mary's College in South Bend, Ind., this fall. Coordinators of the Iraqi Student Project say they have worked to get tuition waivers for 20 qualified students this year, and several have already completed their visa interviews.

The project's American coordinator, Jane Pitz, says even if a visa is granted, the Department of Homeland Security will do its own review, which can take two more months. Pitz complains that it's a frustrating process.

"It irritates me a lot when people say, 'Are you sure you're not letting terrorists in?' " she says. "And even a friend of mine said that, and I looked at him in amazement. They're college-age kids; they certainly are not terrorists. We would've known that by now."


After interested students apply to the Iraqi Student Project, program coordinators visit promising applicants in their homes for personal interviews. Students are selected after further review of their academic performance and grasp of English; then, they spend time working with tutors on their English and other skills. Students then apply to participating American schools that offer programs in their major fields of interest.

So far, there are 14 American colleges signed on with the Iraqi Student Project. Many others, like the University of Wisconsin, are hoping to get involved. First-year UW student Jenny Wustmann helped get a referendum passed that could fund tuition for up to five Iraqi students next year.

Wustmann also has encountered critics who think bringing Iraqis to campus could be dangerous. Others argue that any new money should help struggling students from Wisconsin, not Iraq.

Wustmann says she understands, but "at the same time, there are so many programs that are instilled in the state to help these students. And currently there's nothing being done right now to help these Iraqi students. These are refugees of war. I don't know how you compare needs, but in my opinion, this is something that I feel needs to be done."

At a local coffeehouse, UW freshman Sam Clegg says even a minor increase in tuition shouldn't be targeted for specific humanitarian causes. Clegg also thinks the effort should be to bring an Iraqi professor to campus instead.

"Students would have the chance to see their tuition dollars go to something that has clear educational benefit," he says. "And I think, you know, as an intellectual resource for the Iraqi people, a professor's one of those resources that absolutely needs to be preserved at all costs. And I think the University of Wisconsin could very well have a valid role to play in doing that."

The earliest the University of Wisconsin could see any Iraqi students would be the fall of 2009. By then, coordinators say they expect to have a few dozen Iraqi students already attending colleges in Michigan, Illinois, New York, California and Iowa.

Bull reports for Wisconsin Public Radio.

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