Next Generation

Old UNO/Kabul University partnership takes new turn

UNO communication professor Chris Allen recently returned from a two-week needs assessment trip to Afghanistan. His journey was part of a federally funded journalism faculty-student development program between the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Kabul University. As Afghanistan attempts normalization in this post-Taliban era, the nation’s indigenous media uneasily co-exist with Islamic law and government ambivalence. Allen says “a surprisingly vigorous and developing media system” exists there. Consider two vastly different television shows: the incendiary Niqab has masked women detail abuse they’ve suffered; the popular Afghan Star is an American Idol riff. Training the next generation of Afghan journalists requires access to resources and modern practices. That’s why UNO and Kabul University are connecting aspiring and working journalists in academic, professional and cultural exchanges. Funded by a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. State Department’s Fulbright program, this three-year partnership renews old ties between the two institutions and is the latest example of UNO’s decades-long work with Afghanistan. UNO’s School of Communication and its Center for Afghanistan Studies are collaborating on the program. Allen was accompanied by CAS director and dean of International Studies and Programs Tom Gouttierre, and CAS assistant director Raheem Yaseer. The university’s Afghanistan connection dates to 1972, when two campus geography professors began research collaboratives. A donated collection of Afghanistan materials has grown to 12,000-plus items. In 1975 a linkage with Kabul University began. To date, the center’s received some $60 million in grants and contracts for technical assistance programs, training and educational exchanges. Hundreds of Afghans have come to UNO for training to help rebuild their nation’s infrastructure. Hundreds of Americans come here to train as liaisons in reconstruction efforts. The center maintains a Kabul field office and Team House, where Allen stayed. It also operates the UNO Education Press, which printed the new Afghan constitution and the ballots for the first democratic elections there in decades. Even during the Soviet occupation and war, the Taliban reign of terror and the U.S.-led invasion to oust terrorists, Gouttierre says the center remained in contact with education and government officials in Afghanistan or in exile in Pakistan. He says a model for this new collaborative is the center’s 2002-2005 teacher education project, which brought Afghan women educators for an immersion experience as part of reopening the nation’s schools. Just as those visitors did, Afghan journalists will stay with Nebraska host families. Plans call for a group of Afghan professors to arrive in late spring, with additional contingents of faculty and some students arriving later this year. More UNO School of Communication faculty are to visit Afghanistan in the coming months. Program visitors on each side will observe best practices and shadow their peers. Because UNO’s Chris Allen was in Kabul during finals week he didn’t observe classes, but he did speak with faculty. “I really didn’t know anything about them and they really didn’t know anything about me and to sort of start off on an even footing was a really good thing,” he says. “I didn’t want to go in with preconceived notions that might prejudice the questions I would ask. I could ask really naive questions, and I did that, and I think that served as an icebreaker to say, I need to understand what you guys are doing and what your media are doing as much as you need to understand what we’re doing.” Allen says the Afghans expressed a need for assistance on both teaching and practical levels. He says many wanted to improve teaching techniques by moving from lecture-oriented approaches to more hands-on student participation. He says Afghan educators are hampered by limited facilities and resources, such as teaching television without a studio, cameras or editing equipment, but that a media center is in the works. The most glaring need Allen saw was for more classroom computers. He says the basic reporting class has 10 computers serving 50 students. “I’m not sure how they’re getting that done.” He also marvels at how working media, faculty and students brave forbidding conditions, including security and transportation issues. He’s told that journalism graduates readily find jobs in the Afghan media, which many call “a growth industry.” Admittedly, he says, his lack of Persian language skills limited him, but it didn’t prevent his noting some arcane story structure problems in print and broadcast reports. Despite shortcomings, he and Gouttierre say the media is a vital presence. Dozens of independent print publications have launched. Saad Mohseni, chairman of the largest independent media company there, MOBY Group, is Afghanistan’s first media mogul. The government-run media enterprise RTA is ubiquitous. Radio is the most pervasive medium, says Allen, because it’s accessible and doesn’t require high literacy. Gouttierre says the UNO-KU project comes at a transformational time. “Now we have this situation for UNO faculty and students to be engaged right up close with a country’s media that is trying to leap frog in a sense. It kind of reminds me of when I first went to Afghanistan in the early ’60s as a Peace Corps volunteer and the country was just emerging as a constitutional, parliamentary democratic process. The press was becoming independent at that same time.” He anticipates each side will learn much from the other, though he suspects Americans may have the most to gain. “It’s surprising how far Afghans have taken themselves with few resources and how much we can learn from their creativity and initiative in very trying circumstances. It’s shocking to see how much they’ve accomplished with so many obstacles.”

posted at 10:49 am
on Thursday, January 20th, 2011

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