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American Universities Abroad Double As Diplomats

Jul 26, 2011

In a recent editorial for 'The Chronicle of Higher Education,' American University of Iraq at Sulaimani chancellor Athanasios Moulakis expounded on the ways that United States universities abroad may actually be our country's best export. What services can American schools render in foreign lands that government officials can't?

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By Eric Garneau

In the current global political environment, the United States' presence hasn't exactly been welcomed everywhere it's sprung up. Especially in the Middle East, the turmoil of the past decade has caused many to question the motives and methods of America's involvement overseas. One group of institutions, though, has typically escaped that suspicion, and indeed has proven one of the country's best envoys: American universities.

Chancellor Moulakis from the American University of Iraq at Sulaimani argues in The Chronicle that American schools established overseas, be they independent institutions or branch campuses, actually do the best job of fostering American ideals in a foreign environment. He refers specifically to liberal arts schools that focus on a broad curriculum and attempt to instill values like critical thinking and communication skills into their charges. What do these schools do to make America proud?

1. They're respectful of the country in which they reside. Though some American overseas efforts have taken flack for being brash and oblivious, universities typically conduct themselves in a way that respects local customs and culture. Part of that no doubt has to do with their staff, which is at least somewhat made up of locals.

2. They can bridge gaps between contentious groups. Much as they do back home, American universities overseas provide a meeting place for people of many different cultures and backgrounds. Even in especially troubled parts of the world, it often turns out that students are willing to forego the prejudices and anger of previous generations in favor of working together in the name of mutual respect.

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3. They support humanitarian efforts. In times of international crisis, American universities can act as a proxy for American humanitarian concerns. Chancellor Moulakis specifically cites the American University of Bierut, which provided medical assistance to Lebanon's citizens during recent violent strife.

4. Most importantly, they impart American values in a quiet, organic way. Some accuse recent international United States efforts of being exceedingly jingoistic, but that's not a concern with American universities overseas. As Moulakis points out, they're not focused on propaganda but rather on using their curricula to bestow some of the core values associated with the American way: work ethic, free inquiry, respect and social mobility.

At the heart of the American dream is the notion of empowering one's self to better one's lot in life, and that's the core reason that American universities exist overseas. By fostering that philosophy, schools such as Moulakis' own American University of Iraq at Sulaimani do the United States proud, even though - or perhaps because - they typically don't take the spotlight in international relations.

Even when divided political leaders refuse to make peace, students can buck that trend.

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