Discovering optimists from a war-torn country

Earlier this summer, I had the honor of addressing a group of scholars from Iraq. They were faculty members from several Iraqi universities here for several months on a Fulbright-sponsored program to learn from each other and with Michigan State University colleagues about how to create universities anew from within a nation that has been the focus of strife for decades. Dr. Frank Fear, senior associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, was one of several MSU administrators who helped to create and conduct the extended study group throughout the summer, and he invited Dr. David Schweikhardt, professor of agricultural, food and resource economics, and me to give an overview of the land-grant university system. My part was to explain the cooperative Extension system and how we conduct Extension in Michigan. It was an engaging conversation with the Iraqi participants, some of whom are from agricultural disciplines and some of whom are from engineering disciplines.

 Dr. George Silva, senior Extension educator in the Agriculture and Agribusiness Institute, took the group on a tour to learn about agricultural practices in the Lansing area in late July, and from all accounts they were enthused to get out of meeting rooms and into the real world where they could learn directly about agricultural practices in Michigan. George wowed them with his thoroughness and hospitality.

 I had some follow-up conversations with several Iraqi colleagues and particularly with Dr. Sardar Sardari, professor of poultry science at the University of Salahaddin in Erbil in northern Iraq. Dr. Sardari is working to establish a cooperative Extension program at his institution that would help to bridge applied research to the needs of farmers in northern Iraq. Dr. Sardari and I met for lunch one Friday to discuss some of his ideas about building Extension into his home college, the College of Agriculture, and I was overwhelmed by his enthusiasm, his positive outlook and his profound gratitude for the opportunity to learn and to build something anew. I was humbled to realize that as difficult as the past two years of restructuring and budget reductions have been for us, our challenges pale in comparison with what he and his colleagues face. His guiding perspective is based on the faith that out of considerable destruction and disorder, the human spirit that we all share, when bonded together in common purpose, can create tremendous results. And when that common purpose is centered on extending information and understanding in a way that helps people to improve their lives, the world is transformed, one person, one family, one farm, one business, one community at a time.

 It was rejuvenating for me to spend time with Dr. Sardari and his colleagues, to be reminded of how profound our mission is and how that mission can overcome tremendous challenges in transforming lives. After our lunch, I walked with Dr. Sardari through a construction zone on Harrison Street in East Lansing to show how to get to the Islamic Center for the Friday prayer service. The walk was a poignant one for me. The disruption of a street closed for construction with sidewalks broken and crumbling was of no consequence compared to the faith that drew him to prayers. I realized that broken concrete and disrupted traffic were the norm for the life he has experienced over the past decade. As I returned to my office, I was imbued with new hope and determination for his country and for ours. The positive outlook, persistent faith and commitment to serve I witnessed can help each of us as we continue in our process of remaking MSU Extension.

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  1. You can find a story from WKAR Radio about the group of Iraqi Fulbright Scholars at: