KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Twenty-three years ago, there was a barren plot of land next to a range of mountains near the outskirts of the city of Kandahar, Afghanistan. Twenty-three years ago the number of individuals attending college and obtaining a degree in Kandahar province was very low. Twenty-three years ago, the Afghan government and the Afghan Ministry of Higher Education made the choice to fix both of those issues.
With funding and developmental assistance from the U.S. State Department, today that barren plot of land is now a thriving college campus, home to Kandahar University.
What started as a mobile college, where classes would be held at various points in the city while construction on buildings was ongoing, is now an 11, and counting, building campus, where more than 5,000 students spend their days studying.
Constructed buildings were not in place until 2003; 13 years after the university was originally founded in 1990.
At “KU,” as it is known locally, students have the opportunity to study in the fields of medicine, engineering, education, sharia law, economics and the newest degree program: journalism.
The campus has more than 160 full- and part-time faculty members.
Abdul Tawab Balakarzai, the vice chancellor of academic affairs, spoke about the growth he has seen since the university was founded.
“The progress we have made together has been phenomenal, and I am excited for what is to come,” Balakarzai said. “What we are doing here is instrumental to the successful future of Afghanistan.”
Balakarzai oversees a majority of the educational development at KU, including the new programs and buildings being put in place to expand the campus.
Kandahar University has a standard admissions process comparable to many traditional universities around the world, where students are evaluated based on entrance exams that are controlled by the Afghan Ministry of Higher Education.
Once admitted, students begin taking classes and earning credits toward their chosen degree, a program that major universities worldwide use that KU adopted with help from the Department of State in 2003.
Two of the larger programs at the university are agriculture and medicine, coincidentally the first two programs established at the school.
Before the university had its own teaching hospital located close by, medical students would intern at Mirwais Hospital, but now have the ability to get more hands on experience at a closer location.
Nearby, there is also a nursing school, which was constructed by International Security Assistance Force in 2012.
Three hundred students at the nursing school study one of four nationally accredited training programs: nursing, midwifery, lab science or pharmacology.
Agricultural students have unique opportunities to study various topics within the department including soil science, horticulture, and plant protection: three areas that are critical to understand in the dense climate of Afghanistan, Balakarzai said.
One of the other major developments KU has seen is the number of female applicants and students.
Of the 5,000 students, 300 are women.
Women have the opportunity to have their own hostels and sleeping quarters, just as the men who attend the university and live on campus do.
Maryam Durani, a broadcast journalist and female activist in Afghanistan, talked about the importance of education for women in Afghanistan.
“Twelve years ago, we didn’t have girls going to school – they were too afraid,” Durani said. “Now we have 300 attending KU and that is a great thing.”
Durani is a member of the Kandahar provincial council, the governing body for much of what happens in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan. She has worked with officials to develop educational programs for female students.
Two years ago, she was a recipient of the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage award for her work in Afghanistan as a women’s rights activist. Hillary Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama presented the award to her at a ceremony in the U.S. in 2012.
Another development at KU is the new journalism department, which already has nearly 250 students studying this year.
The U.S. State Department has funded a media operations center that the journalism faculty will use for classroom instruction, starting in December 2013.
Media outlets will also be able to produce and distribute news to the local population with help from the MOC.
Balakarzai was excited when speaking about the upcoming addition to the university.
“This addition will greatly enhance our capabilities to educate our journalism students as well as get more media here in Kandahar,” he said.
Over the last couple of years, KU has also begun to expand their curriculum outside of Afghanistan.
Currently, KU has a partnership with Ball State University to establish a Department of Entrepreneurship in the Faculty of Economics (the first such department in Afghanistan), and to add an entrepreneurship component to its new Career Center (the first such center in Afghanistan).
The U.S. Embassy also has a Fulbright exchange program, which provides study opportunities in the U.S. for postgraduate work. Several graduates from KU have studied in the U.S. as part of this program.
The Embassy and KU are also working to develop a civil engineering program partnership with a U.S. university.
In addition to the MOC, KU is adding a couple of new residence halls and a library.
Currently, there is one main library, and each department has its own small library.
The new library, which spans four stories, complete with large study rooms and elevator access, will provide students a central gathering place to study, Balakarzai said.
“It is exciting because now our students will be able to stay on campus…to study together,” he said.
Balakarzai also pointed out that the designers and project manager for the construction of the library, as well as the other buildings being built on campus, are all local Afghans who themselves have graduated college in Kabul in northern Afghanistan.
In addition to the new buildings, KU is improving on existing structures, which are all now solar-powered.
The University of Arizona donated more than 350 solar panels back in 2012, and engineering students at KU constructed, designed, and installed frames for them.
Funds for the installation came from the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
When the solar panels are not in use during peak times of the day, generated power is routed back into the city for local use at night.
All of the development of KU has Balakarzai looking forward to a new generation of leaders, doctors, engineers and farmers.
“Education will allow the new generation of young people to help this country prosper and develop, and make significant progress like we have over the last decade or so,” Balakarzai said.
He is thankful for the U.S. Embassy and Department of State for their efforts and guidance in the development of education in Kandahar.
“I am grateful for everything U.S. agencies all have done,” he said, “I look forward to doing great things and our partnership in the future.”
Dr. Ahmed Attieg, the U.S. Agency for International Development health and education adviser in Kandahar, who has worked with Balakarzai and KU officials over the last couple of years, echoed his statement.
“I am so proud of what we have been able to accomplish here and I thank [Balakarzai] for [his] leadership,” Attieg said.
The efforts from the KU staff and Department of State recently garnered recognition as the third best university in all of Afghanistan, as rated by the Afghan Ministry of Higher Education.
“We are extremely happy and proud of that accomplishment,” Balakarzai said. “We as a staff and faculty will continue to work hard and maintain that standard, and shoot for even higher. The future looks very bright for us.”