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Dekle First Female President At An Iraqi University


There is an old Arab saying that proclaims books are written in Cairo, published in Beirut and read in Baghdad. Those cradles of civilization were cradles of learning, and that education continues even as those places in modern times fell into unrest and violence, in part thanks to a string of English-language American universities dating back to Beirut in the 1800s.

We're going to hear now from Dawn Dekle. Just weeks ago, she took up her duties as president of the American University in Iraq, founded six years ago in the Kurdish region. She came to Iraq from Kabul, where she was the top administrator at the new American University there. We reached her via Skype in Iraq.

DAWN DEKLE: If you're somebody right now in Afghanistan or Iraq, you've got a son or daughter who is capable, you want to try to send that son or daughter to the United States. You might completely disagree with American foreign policy, but no one really disagrees that the Harvards, the MITs, the Stanfords of the world are world-class. Having said that, you can get sticker shock from some of these schools. You could have visa issues trying to get your son or daughter into these schools. So why not bring the school to the students?

MONTAGNE: So did you - I mean, I know these are two very different countries and two very different situations. But tell us about the transition from the American University in Kabul in Afghanistan to the American University in Iraq. What did you find that was similar and what is the difference?

DEKLE: One variable that's a little bit different here than possibly Afghanistan, is that within the Kurdish region of Iraq, Americans are welcomed. Whereas, in Afghanistan, many of the Afghans that I met were a bit fatigued with having Americans in their country. I'm not saying Afghans are not welcoming, because their culture is legendary for being wonderful hosts. It's just more of a slight undertone. And who can blame them? What I find that the Kurdish, they're so enthusiastic. They want to ask us all about the United States and speak English with you, and they're just wonderful. I feel very welcomed here.

MONTAGNE: What are the challenges of being a woman in your job - in both Iraq and, previously, in Afghanistan?

DEKLE: Well, I think in both countries you have a percentage female students that's less than 50 percent as part of the student population. And so one of the things I like to think I do is to role model for students that there is a place for you in higher education. One thing that I learned in Afghanistan was that instead of feeling suppressed or oppressed or a second-class citizen, I became what's known as a third gender. The first gender would be men, whether they're Afghan men or Western men. The second gender would be Afghan women. And then the third gender is a Western woman, which is what I am. This really helped me with recruiting efforts. I could go into an Afghan household, meet with the male head of the family and his brothers. Then I could go to the other room and meet with the women. A Western male would not be able to do that. So in a certain sense I had a lot more access, a lot more influence. So when I joined the university in Afghanistan, we had 18 percent female enrollment, or about one in five. And I'm proud to report the freshman class this year, coming into the American University of Afghanistan, is 50 percent female. So we did this, we moved the needle in two years on the percent female.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

DEKLE: Well, thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Dawn Dekle is the new president of the American University of Iraq. And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.