Dr. Sara Bryant, far left, Dr. Melody Wehrung, back to camera, and Dr. John Kooti during a meeting in Baghdad.

SU officials reflect on recent trip to Iraq, plan next visit

Three members of the Shippensburg University community are already planning their return visit to Baghdad as part of the university's efforts to help improve finance and banking education in Iraq.

Dr. John Kooti, dean of the John L. Grove College of Business; Dr. Melodye Wehrung, executive director of social equity; and Dr. Sarah K. Bryant, professor of finance and supply chain management, left the United States Jan. 3 and returned on Jan. 12 to begin work on a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) grant. USAID is an independent agency that provides economic, development and humanitarian assistance around the world in support of the foreign policy goals of the United States.

The grant is funding three projects; a feasibility study to establish a Center of Excellence in Finance and Banking at Baghdad University; establish a Center for Teaching Excellence for Iraqi Colleges of Management and Economics; and foster quality assurance, development of administrative capacity and guidance through the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accreditation advising.

Kooti, said the trip was very successful. “The project itself is going very well. We made more progress that we anticipated,” he said.

He said that the group visited the stock market in Baghdad, met with that organizations chief executive officer and discussed the needs of the newly established exchange. The team is looking into needs of finance and banking sector versus what the colleges of business offer, specifically, Baghdad University. “We want to help, in terms of matching or filling, the gap between the two,” said Kooti.

Dr. Sarah Bryant said Shippensburg is spearheading establishment of a Center for Excellence in Finance and Banking. “We’re just beginning and we are putting together a report on our next steps and on our next trip we will collect data.”

Bryant said the goal is not to tell the Iraqi’s what to do as they rebuild and strengthen their financial industry and related higher education, but rather make recommendations for them to build upon.

Both Kooti and Bryant said that the university officials were very enthusiastic about the effort. “The professors at the University of Baghdad were really asking for help,” said Bryant, including getting Arabic translations of textbooks used in Shippensburg’s courses. “What I needed to do was get copies of their syllabi and understand what they are doing. That is paramount to making good recommendations later on. We want to help and assist rather than replace.”

Traveling to Iraq and staying in the war-torn country was unsettling at times but the group learned to cope, Kooti said. Bryant added that you learn to appreciate what we have here and “We are very blessed.”

Wehrung said that every university wants to be acknowledged for where they are on their journey and that is the same in Iraq. “They are proud of their accomplishments,” said Wehrung, who noted that the university had sustained damage from the shelling and bombing “and academics were a target and they are getting out of that.”

She said that the library sustained a lot of devastation. “All the books were on the floor and because it’s a desert it’s quite dusty. They had cleaned up the books and put them back on the shelves which was a huge undertaking.”

All three noted that security was ever-present during their time in Baghdad, but that the compound in which they stayed was a comforting place. “I felt safe there,” said Wehrung.

Wehrung and Bryant said they were particularly aware of what is expected of women in the male-dominated country. “We stopped in Istanbul prior to making the final trip to Iraq,” said Wehrung, “There we noticed that all the women had their hair covered. We had scarves with us, so we covered our heads as well.”

Even though covering their hair was not expected of foreigners, they did their utmost to be respectful of the culture, Bryant said.

While each day of the trip was filled with meetings and work, Wehrung said it is the relationships that were formed that will help move the project forward. “In my opinion, a lot of work is respecting each other as individuals, not just as experts. How are we going to collaborate if we don’t know each other’s lives, but I found out we have so much in common,” she said. “It’s quite thrilling to be part of this. I think when you have a mission and everyone is on the same team in regards to the goals, it is quite gratifying.”

According to Bryant, “For me a lasting impression for me was how much the people want to improve their situation.”

The team will return to Iraq this spring to continue their work.