Off the Cuff: Off the Cuff: Zia Afghan
Ahmad Zia Afghan is a first-year Fulbright Scholar from Afghanistan currently studying Economics at Oberlin College.
Would you mind explaining your Fulbright scholarship?
Since the new government of Ahmed Karzai [in Afghanistan], the U.S. Embassy of Kabul initiated the Fulbright scholarship in Afghanistan to foster leadership and learning.
[The goals of the program are] to get a higher education; to understand the culture in the United States and to build a strong, long-lasting relationship between Afghanistan and the United States.
What was your education in Afghanistan like?
I was a senior in Kabul University in the Department of Economics. At different times I received different kinds of education. I studied in Pakistani schools, and I came to Afghanistan during the Karzai [post-Taliban] period and attended public schools and an Afghan university.
What were the differences between your educational experiences in Afghanistan and Pakistan?
In Pakistani schools, everything is in English, while the education in Afghanistan is all Pashtun and Persian. Because of constant war in Afghanistan there has not been development in Afghan education. This has created difficulties for me, going from one system to another. I missed some of the opportunities and materials I should have had.
How is an American college different than Kabul University?
U.S. higher education has a reputation all over the world, and it should be praised because you have updated knowledge. In Afghanistan much of [our materials] are 20 to 30 years old and the curriculum is obsolete. Because of the lack of resources, education is backward.
The Afghan higher education system is a European-based system. They give the lectures and notes to the students, and usually the students cannot participate that much. Because of that, in technical terms, it is a monologue. However, they are introducing new pedagogical techniques with the help of NGOs to make a dialogue system between students and teachers.
Does the continuing war in Afghanistan affect Kabul University?
When Kabul University was first established, there were professors who were brought from the United States by the Rotary Club and from Germany and the Arab world, and it was a famous international university. When the war started with the Soviet Invasion it changed everything. The college was transformed into a battleground. People were working for their political parties and no one was working for academia. People had to be part of their party and fight and people were killed.… Education was completely stopped and everything stagnated.
Today, when the subject is related to ethnic groups and political groups there is usually controversy, and usually it is because the students have membership in the parties and there is a kind of break in the class with one party sitting on one side and one party sitting on the other. If there is academic controversy, students can participate — it is not prohibited like during the Taliban period. If there is controversy based on academic principles there is no problem. Under the new government people have new freedom, especially in the academy.
How is your experience here at Oberlin?
It is really a very big pleasure for me to have the Fulbright Scholarship...and secondly, Oberlin is one of the best colleges in the U.S. Coming from an underdeveloped country it is very pleasing; it would be rewarding to take my experience here and share it with my country.
At Oberlin College, I am facing some problems also. The material here is much higher than my standards and I cannot do as well as I should here. I feel really alone also, because there is no one from my country. At other cities and colleges, there are people from Afghanistan, but here that is not true. There are times in higher education when you need to build attachments with your own people.
Do you keep in touch with friends and family at home?
There are 40 Fulbright students from Afghanistan here [in the U.S.] and when I get bored I call them. I’m also in contact with my family in Afghanistan and I call them once or twice a month.
Are you involved with any student groups here? Are there any College events that you’ve particularly enjoyed?
I am mostly concentrated on my studies because that is the most difficult part of my life and I have to work twice as hard as [a] U.S. student. I was a well-rounded student in my country. I joined sports teams and student groups, but here I am only now able to just join the Oberlin international intramural soccer team and Model UN.
What do you think of President Karzai?
During the Taliban period I went from Pakistan to Afghanistan for my summer vacation and when I went there were no stores, only small shops. I wanted to buy a biscuit, but there was only one kind and that means that there was no trade, no production. Ahmed Karzai really has done good for Afghanistan. His plans, his strategies and his politics are holy. Taking Afghanistan from that backwardness to development is hard, but Ahmed Karzai has achieved much and I am happy to have such a president.
What should Americans understand about Afghanistan?
As an Afghan, the only thing that bothers people in Afghanistan is when U.S. forces are attacking and sometimes Taliban are not killed, civilians are killed. The United States should respect the lives of civilians in its operations, but I think U.S. and international forces are mostly welcome in most areas of Afghanistan.
What are your plans for when you are done here at Oberlin?
My dream is that one day I will get my degree at Oberlin and the next day I will get my ticket back to Afghanistan. Whatever happens to my country, whether there is war or not, I want to be able to support my country.