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Kate O’Neill and the rest of the American University of Afghanistan community remain determined to live up to their motto: “Education will prevail.”
It was adopted after Taliban gunmen attacked the campus in Kabul in 2016, killing more than a dozen students and staff while wounding many more. When the Taliban rolled into Kabul last month amid the chaotic U.S. withdrawal, one of the first things they took over was the university’s campus.
The school’s website and social media outlets have gone dark. Records were destroyed as the Taliban closed in to protect the identity of students and staff. CNN reports only about 50 students were evacuated and 50 to 75 got out of the country on their own. That’s out of 4,000 the university hoped to evacuate.
It’s a dire situation. And yet, classes officially started on Aug. 29, virtually, for any students able to log on.
“Yeah, well, we're more determined than ever,” said O’Neill, of Marion, who is an associate professor of management at the American University of Afghanistan and also leads a business program in the country sponsored by USAID. She left Afghanistan at the end of March 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic and has been teaching remotely.
“Honestly, we've doubled down, you know, in our determination to see this through. As long as we still receive funding we're going to be there,” O’Neill said.
When I spoke to O’Neill last year, she talked about the university’s efforts to train bright, ambitious students to be the next generation of Afghan leaders. Some already worked in the government. O’Neill was working to build a culture of research, teaching students how to gather data that would guide policy decisions.
Much of the coverage of the U.S. withdrawal has focused on America’s failures in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. But the university is an American-funded success story.
“You look at what our alumni have done, the businesses, they have started the positions that they held within Afghanistan, that internationally, the research that our MBA students have done as part of their academic work. And, you know, the return on investment has been dramatic. As a U.S. taxpayer, I think it's probably one of the best investments our government ever made is investing in education in Afghanistan.”
And yet, we left them in danger. We paid to educate them. They are eligible for visas, but the Biden administration couldn’t or wouldn’t get them out. These bright, ambitious students now face the real possibility of Taliban brutality, particularly women who were enrolled at the school. We turned our success story into another dismal failure, one of many tangled up in our ill-planned departure.
But O’Neill is focused on providing some hope to students not only in Kabul but across Afghanistan. They have not been forgotten.
“I have had contact with quite a few students, they are understandably concerned,” O’Neill said. “But, you know, part of my job right now is to provide a sense of psychological safety and hope, to say that we don't know what the future is going to hold. We don't know what it's going to look like, but we are doing everything in our power as a university, and particularly as their faculty members, to make sure that they can continue their education.
“Not only have we not forgotten them, but we really are standing in solidarity and supporting them. It may look different than it did in the past. But different doesn't mean that we've abandoned them,” O’Neill said.
Despite the Taliban’s hostility to education, especially for women, O’Neill believes learning can continue.
“We know during the Taliban era, there were plenty of people who had underground schools,” O’Neill said. “Well, hopefully with social media, and everybody having cellphones, that will continue or expand if the Taliban were to limit education.
“But what I can firmly say, confidently say, is we cannot stop with education in Afghanistan,” O’Neill said.
In other words, education will prevail.
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