On the day I spoke with professor Kate O’Neill via Skype from Kabul, Afghanistan, two rivals each claiming the country’s presidency held simultaneous inauguration ceremonies. There were explosions.
“It’s rarely a dull day here, news-wise,” said O’Neill, who has been in Afghanistan since August, away from her family in Marion. She left her former post as an associate professor of strategic leadership at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids.
O’Neill understands that Afghanistan remains a dangerous and dysfunctional place. The reality is right outside the triple blast walls that surround the American University of Afghanistan. That’s where she teaches a graduate program in management in a place that seems, to anyone who follows the news, unmanageable.
But what we don’t often get to see is what O’Neill sees every day in the efforts of her Afghan students, working to make their country better against considerable odds and barriers.
“They’re incredibly bright, ambitious, motivated,” O’Neill said. “I mean, to thrive in a country that’s been at war for 40 years, you have to be incredibly intelligent and clever and creative and ambitious. They’re working full-time jobs and raising families and going to grad school full time.”
Some of her students are presidential advisers, run procurement and logistics for non-governmental organizations or work in the nation’s central bank. Some are hoping to start businesses making new goods and services available to Afghans.
“They’re really optimistic and forward-looking,” O’Neill said. “We have some of the brightest, most ambitious people in the country.”
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And what they’re learning from O’Neill is how to learn, or, more precisely, how to conduct research and gather data that can inform business and public policy decisions. There’s a lack of good reliable data in Afghanistan, which undercuts efforts to craft effective policies and practices. Better data and decisions can help push the country uphill toward stability.
“We know when people feel economically stable they will fight very hard to keep that stability for themselves and their families and their communities,” O’Neill said. She’s leading a nationwide study on how Afghans perceive and define leadership.
“Nobody has asked these questions here. They’ve looked at it through the political lens or the religious lens or mostly the geopolitical conflict lens. But asking your everyday Afghan who gets up and goes to work, ‘What’s a good boss to you?’ Nobody’s done that,” she said.
There are, of course, barriers to research.
One is trust.
“When you don’t have a culture of research and suddenly you start asking questions, there’s not a general understanding in the public. ‘Why are you asking me this? What are you going to do with this?’ ” O’Neill said.
Another is security.
“It’s dangerous to be out on the streets here. Both from what you hear about in the States with terrorists and just simply … there’s a lot of violent street crime here. It’s simply not safe to be out and about,” said O’Neill, who gets to venture beyond the blast walls only on rare, tightly controlled occasions.
But O’Neill and her students are undeterred.
“It’s very exciting to be helping support and develop the first generation of people who are doing this. Every small study they do is groundbreaking,” O’Neill said. “I can’t think of anything better. That’s so incredibly rewarding.”
Back home in Marion, O’Neill’s husband, Scott Wynkoop, a robotics instructor in the Linn-Mar school district, and their two sons, Kai, a junior, and Peyton, a freshman, are holding down the fort. An older son, Harrison, is a freshman at Tulane University.
“I am so blessed that I have the most amazing, supportive family in the world,” O’Neill said. “That Scott and the three boys completely understand that this is my passion and this is my contribution to the world, that I’ve been so privileged to get the education that I have and that I want to share it with people who don’t have enough access.
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“I couldn’t do it without them,” said O’Neill, who lists the football games, rugby matches, first days of school and a college send-off she missed.
But O’Neill came to Afghanistan determined to support Afghan efforts to stabilize their country and give it a future. A safer, more stable Afghanistan would mean a more peaceful region and world for her children. After the United States’ long military mission, now winding down, O’Neill wants to work on what happens next.
“I guess in a lot of ways I see what we’re doing as the next step. If the military is creating the security conditions, then it’s our job now as educators and development workers and skill builders to fill that space that they’re creating for us,” O’Neill said.
She’s not sure, exactly, when she’ll return to the United States. She wants to see her graduate students complete their work. And O’Neill wants us to not lose sight of their optimism.
“We hear all the negative about Afghanistan, which I don’t want to downplay at all. It is worse than the press can communicate,” O’Neill said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about how bright and ambitious and motivated so many Afghans are.
“I don’t want people to give up on Afghanistan,” she said.
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