By Melissa Gerber and Colleen Carow
Farid Momand isn't your typical civil engineering master's degree candidate. He, along with six others studying in Ohio University's Russ College of Engineering and Technology, already is a faculty member in his home country.
Momand is part of Afghan Merit Scholar Program, in which faculty members from Kabul University and Kabul Polytechnic University are gaining knowledge in the United States to help rebuild their war-torn country.
This year, the Afghan eQuality Alliances, an initiative funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to improve the quality of higher education in Afghanistan, has enabled 18 of the 56 engineering faculty members at the two universities to enroll in higher education in the United States, Japan or South Africa. Funded jointly by Ohio University and the Afghan eQuality Alliances, the scholars program was established in part by Washington State University's Extension and Center to Bridge the Digital Divide with approval from USAID.
Russ Professor of Civil Engineering Shad Sargand, originally from Afghanistan as well, spurred Ohio University's involvement in the program in hopes of helping his homeland.
Six of Ohio University's students are from Kabul University and a seventh from Kabul Polytechnic.
Momand said he knew he wanted to apply to Ohio University back in 2005. "Dr. Sargand came and gave a presentation about his background in transportation research and introduced the program," he said.
The students, who range in age from 24 to the mid-40s, are enrolled in two-year master's degree programs in civil, mechanical or electrical engineering. One major program goal is to establish a research institute at the University of Kabul that the school's six Afghan Merit Scholars would run.
"Afghanistan does a good job teaching theory, but there is no lab work," Momand explained. "But at Ohio University, a big part of our studies involves labs."
The institute, according to Sargand, would help the scholars continue to improve their technical backgrounds and be productive faculty members after their return. He hopes the laboratory experimentation training and practice will lead to successful implementation of laboratory methods in Afghanistan.
"These people are talented," Sargand said. "Because of the turmoil in Afghanistan they have been unable to access state-of-the-art knowledge until now."
Andrew Russ, a research engineer for the Russ College's Ohio Research Institute for Transportation and Environment, said that in addition to using their education to teach in Kabul, the students can contribute to their nation's efforts to reconstruct road and water systems.
Three decades of war has wreaked havoc on almost all of Afghanistan's infrastructure, said Momand, who worked for a construction company in Kabul while teaching.
"Roads, bridges and other related facilities to transportation systems are in very bad condition," Momand said. "We still have people in far villages -- and suburban districts -- who do not have access to good transportation facilities."
All of the students are visiting the United States for the first time and have worked to overcome language barriers by taking courses through the Ohio Program of Intensive English. They also stayed in Athens over the winter intersession for workshops in both English and engineering theory.
Those new skills are helping them to collaborate with four professors at the United States Military Academy at West Point to present a conference paper this summer. The paper discusses how to implement a civil engineering program at the National Military Academy in Afghanistan.
Momand will assist in the paper presentation and also attend the annual weeklong American Society of Civil Engineers conference in Pittsburgh this June.
His return home will be marked with a celebration of his new degree and a reunion with his family since he, like his fellow scholars, won't have the opportunity to return to Afghanistan until they graduate in fall 2009.
"We will go back to Kabul with all we have learned," he said.
Updated at 3:34 p.m. April 4, 2008, to provide background information about the program's origin.