By Dale Walker
A few months ago, many freshmen American students were studying at universities with highly funded science labs and spending time sitting on the well-manicured lawns of their various campuses surrounded by buildings constructed in the classical Greco-Roman style. These students were attending the same universities that some of their parents and grandparents attended and whose financial contributions in the form of alumni gifts were large enough to fund the construction and maintenance of these very same buildings.
These students were living in modern fully furnished pet-friendly student accommodations with granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances. When they exited their private flats and ventured outside, what met their eyes were large luxurious swimming pools, gyms, on-site coffee bars, yoga studios, and theater-style community gaming rooms all of which, they had full access. Some of these students did not know or even care how much their education and accommodations were costing as many of them never saw a bill. Every bill was paid by their parents and all personal purchases made, were charged to credit cards also paid by their parents. Their only responsibility was to study, make friends, and have fun.
In the interest of full discloser my son was one of those students. In the fall of 2019, he went off to start his freshman year at an American university and I decided to take a pay cut and headed off to teach in Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF). I believed then that the time was right to practice the philosophy that I had been teaching my son all his life and my American college students for the last 10 years. I had other job offers around the world but felt I could make a more meaningful contribution serving the students of Afghanistan. After discussing my final decision with my son to go to Kabul and reassuring him—when I myself was not certain —that I would be safe, he sent me off with his full moral support to go and serve the students in the Islamic world in August of 2019.
My inspiration for this move came from a few Greek and Roman philosophers, in whose writings I had discovered the recipe for living a happy, good, and fulfilled life. I had often lectured to my American students that if the position is taken that their lives could never be fulfilled unless they had lived at least a small part of it in the service of humanity, then they had to be: contemplative about what really serves the best interest of others; they then had to take action; at times they had to take chances, and most important they had to be prepared to be self-less or be willing to experience self-sacrifice. Now, it was my turn to challenge myself to practice what I had been teaching for all those years because I could no longer use the “single parent excuse card” that I had to focus on raising my son, as he was now leaving me to start his own four years independent, social and university life.
For many years I had been contemplating what non-military service if given, would really be in the best interest of the Afghan people. I concluded that no country which had gone through decades of war and conflict could ever recall its claim to greatness unless a constant stream of its young citizens—male and female—were being educated. I had been following the work of AUAF since 2006 and realized despite all the challenges it had faced—both external and internal—they were nevertheless committed to giving Afghans the same quality of education that is given to students back here in America. Thus, having spent many years in deep contemplative thought, it was now time for action. Dismissing the dire warnings of some of my family, friends, and former colleagues, I accepted the offer to go to teach the future leaders of Afghanistan. I made this choice of being fully aware of the dangers that come with working in an active conflict zone. Always reminding myself, that to live the fulfilled life, we must sometimes take a fatalistic approach that we do not know what the future holds, but we do know what our self-less duties are.
Around spring break when it became clear that the Coronavirus had become a pandemic and almost every country had reported positive cases, and universities around the world started to close their campuses, AUAF was no exception. In America, students were hurriedly packing up their personal belongings to leave their student accommodations and return to their homes. Some parents even traveled hundreds of miles to take their kids away from their universities as social distancing became the new norm and AUAF had to take similar action based on an order from the Ministry of Higher Education. However, unlike American students, many of our dorm students had no home to go to or no parents to come and pick them up in luxury vehicles.
I was still on campus in Kabul when one of my freshman students came to me looking very stressed, telling me that she had nowhere to go because her parents lived in Pakistan, and by this time Pakistan had closed its border with Afghanistan. I advised her to go to our president David Sydney, reminding her amid her reluctance, that he was also a father, and like any concerned parent, he would do all in his power to ensure her safety. I was certain that he would help her because his administrative style is one that many university presidents can learn from, as he practices an open-door policy to students, and he is also visible and approachable to them during his daily lunchtime and evening walks around the campus. Later that day, David made the brave and compassionate decision to put the university in total lockdown giving students who had no homes to go to, or those for whom it was too unsafe to return to their homes, the choice to stay in lockdown inside the safety of AUAF.
As many American students like my son got settled in to make the sudden switch from on-site to online classes from the comfort of their homes with 24/7 high-speed internet, it would appear that our Afghan students were once again going to be left behind the rest of the world in education. Many of our students do not have continuous internet access at their homes as it can be very expensive in Kabul city and other parts of the country. However, AUAF made the decision to buy data packages and send it to the mobile phone numbers of every AUAF student free of charge so we too, like the rest of the world could move all our classes online once spring break was over.
On Sunday, March 22, I awoke to the news that flights in and out of Kabul were ending and the warnings of the US Embassy in Kabul strongly urging American citizens to leave Kabul while there were still a few flights available. I made the decision to leave Kabul and left the next day for Istanbul connecting on a direct flight to my home state of Texas. I decided to leave because in the unlikely event something happened to my son, it would have been impossible to get out of Kabul in an emergency, as many in-transit countries were shutting down their borders and airports.
On Wednesday, March 25, I started to teach my 11 am class in Kabul at 1:30 am (Texas Time) online. Later that morning as I chatted with my son, he told me that he was about to log in to one of his classes. It was at that moment I realized that my Afghan students many of them his age, were possible for the first time academically equal to American students in every respect. As my son went about his online classes, I reflected on what I told him several years ago when we lived in England. I was doing a law degree in International Human Rights and he was attending primary school at the time. One evening, when I collected him from school, he preemptively stopped my daily question to him by asking, “dad what did you learn at university today?” To which I responded that I learned if equality is violated then any policy, any institution, any law, any service is unjust—he, of course, paid no attention to what I said, because the colorful cakes in the baker’s window on our walk home were of more interest to him.
My reflection made me realize that it took a pandemic to achieve what many international documents including the UN Declaration of Human Rights has never been able to achieve – total global equality in education. Yes, it took the Coronavirus which was attacking all countries regardless of developed or developing nation status, if they were at peace or at war, if they were Islamic countries or not, for us to have, albeit temporary global justice in education because all classes had to be conducted online. Thus, once a student had internet access, it also meant they had equal access to their professors regardless of geographic location. Maybe university registrars around the world should print a COVID-19 notation on the transcript of every student as a reminder of how they were all equally connected globally in the spring of 2020.
When this pandemic is over my son like so many American students, will eventually return to his university life to have fun with his college friends at football games, his residence swimming pool, and Saturday night students hang out places. Hopefully, he will also find time to fit in a bit of studying. As for me, and like many of the ancient philosophers, I intend to continue my journey in search of achieving a happy, good, and fulfilled life, by returning to Kabul to continue my service to the students of Afghanistan. However, I will do so in the knowledge that for a moment in history, I lived to see that Afghan students were equal in their access to education to American students because this virus forced every university around the world to end on-site classes. It will do us all well to remember, that if we believe that education is a human right, then it means that it must be enjoyed equally by all humans, regardless of race, religion, gender, or geographic location.
About the Author:
Dale Walker is currently an Associate Professor in the Social Sciences and Humanities Department at the American University of Afghanistan. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Wales (UK), and his LLM in International Human Rights Law at the University of Leicester (UK). He has previously held college teaching positions in the United Kingdom and the United States.