When a university group from Iraq's northern Kurdish region traveled to study at Virginia Tech this past summer, their home was at peace.
But by the time the 14 administrators and faculty members arrived in Blacksburg, fighters with the Islamic State had taken surprise aim at the region's capital, and more than 1,700 people had been killed.
"In our region, there was an anxiety against these terrorist forces, but when we left, there was not the sense that Irbil was in danger," said Hawraz Hama of the University of Raparin, about 70 miles east of the Kurdish capital.
Despite the turn of events, he and others in the delegation stuck to their training commitment: "In our country higher education needs to be improved."
Participants say the program, newly authorized for a second year at Virginia Tech, is vital because strengthening education systems fosters stability. Training like this can also help stem the rise of militant groups such as the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
"Universities are the places where we can lead society to be a model society," said Paiman Ahmad, also from Raparin. "When we build up our education, we start seeing improvements elsewhere."
Before the group came to Blacksburg, the Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute held intensive workshops in Irbil. Topics included curriculum design, academic leadership, and instructional methods for English language faculty. Participants were introduced to tools such as Moodle, an open-source learning platform.
"It was intensive training," said Hama, who chairs Raparin's English department. "We faced different assignments regarding leadership, professional development, university governance, and being a good leader. It was also good to be introduced to so many new online tools."
The training initiative, funded by the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, is called the Iraqi Kurdistan Rural Universities Partnership Program and is run by the Language and Culture Institute in partnership with the nonprofit IREX. In addition to Raparin, the program also includes the University of Halabja and the University of Zakho. Each was founded in the past 10 years.
Back in Iraqi Kurdistan, Hama has already instituted changes at Raparin, where curriculum improvements have resulted in better-prepared future English teachers. Some courses were axed while others were added, such as classroom management, teaching methodologies, and materials design.
The Virginia Tech program "accelerated the process of improving the quality of education at our new established universities," Hama said.
IREX has approved Virginia Tech to continue the program in 2015, said Don Back, who directs the Language and Culture Institute and led workshops for the Kurdish administrators. The program helps fulfill Virginia Tech's land-grant mission, and "such collaborations allow us at Virginia Tech to really share the best of our university while also helping address the specific challenges that confront Iraqi Kurdistan."
Lori Mason, project director at IREX, said the U.S. Embassy has an interest in supporting rural universities in part because educators lack "opportunities for engagement with the outside academic community."
The engagement paid off for participants like Ahmad, who said, "One of our main goals was to move from a classical model of teaching, where a professor stands and lectures with very little interaction with students, to a modern model and student-centered teaching. The old way is common across Iraq, but we are younger, we want to embed new technology, new pedagogy to help us stand out."
Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.