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2015 June 26 - 04:55 pm

An Afghan Alliance

Spokane CC Helps Afghanistan Build Two-Year System

Call it distance education, but of a different sort.

Earlier this month, Steve Wilson, a biomedical engineering professor at Spokane Community College, began a journey that would take him from eastern Washington to Kabul, Afghanistan, a teeming city of more than 3 million people more than 6,500 miles away.

His mission: to help higher education officials in that impoverished, war-torn country launch an associate degree program to teach technicians to repair and maintain advanced medical equipment — devices like MRIs, diagnostic ultrasound machines and surgical lasers.

“Afghanistan has a high school system and it has a university system, but they don’t have a technical education system,” Wilson said. “There’s nothing in the middle. There’s a gap.”

Wilson’s trip is part of the Afghanistan-U.S. Best Practices Study Course, an exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development. It followed a visit by 15 Afghanistan educators to SCC, where they got an up-close-and-personal glimpse at how an American community college operates. The Afghan educators wanted to determine if the American community college can de adapted to Afghanistan.

“There was a lot of awe and wonder,” said Christine Johnson, chancellor of the Community Colleges of Spokane. “For most of them, this was their first trip to the United States. Our two countries are at very different levels economically and with the use of technology in health care.”

“They were eager to learn. They really appreciated us wanting to help them learn. They have some horrible circumstances back home, but they want to learn.”

A second community college, Central Georgia Technical College, is also involved in the exchange. The lead institution for the program is the University of Massachusetts, which received a $93 million USAID grant and has been working to help rebuild Afghanistan’s education and health care infrastructure, shattered after three decades of war and destruction. UMass picked the two community colleges to take part in the initiative.

Central Georgia will work to establish an information technology associate degree program in Afghanistan. According to The (Macon, Ga.) Telegraph, CGTC was selected because of its experience in delivering remote training to airmen stationed at Robins Air Force Base.

According to The Telegraph, College President Ivan Allen said 3,000 Afghans signed up for the information technology degree, but only 40 were accepted. They include both students and instructors. The course will be taught using distance education technology.

Spokane Community College was picked because of its biomedical equipment technician program, one of only 10 in the United States, and its record of placing its graduates in jobs and working with local employers.

Designing and launching the associate degree program will fill a critical need in Afghanistan. While millions of dollars have been spent on rebuilding medical facilities there, a huge gap remains. There is virtually no local supply of trained technicians needed to maintain and repair all that expensive equipment. .

“If the government has donated a piece of equipment, and it’s in disrepair, it’s not very useful,” Johnson said.

Afghanistan flies in technicians from Pakistan and Turkey if something breaks down. Sometimes, if a piece of equipment breaks down, it simply remains idle. Other times, a hospital will simply buy a new one to replace the one that broke down, Wilson said.

“It’s like your car won’t start, and instead of getting it fixed, you go out and buy a new one,” Wilson said. “That’s not something you can sustain.”

“This is really critical equipment, and this stuff really does break down. And that is a real problem.”

Wilson’s immediate task in Kabul is to review the curriculum of the fledgling associate degree program. He will also make recommendations for the purchase of equipment for a teaching lab.

The Afghans will not be building a community college system from scratch, but rather will integrate associate degrees into their existing university system, said Lisa Avery, CCS vice provost for strategic partnerships and formerly dean of global education. The associate degree program is scheduled to start this fall at Kabul Medical University.

The SCC biomedical equipment technician program trains students for careers maintaining and repairing sophisticated medical equipment. The program stresses hands-on training, and therein lies a challenge. The Afghan educational system has virtually no experience with the kind of applied instruction that so characterizes American community colleges.

“It’s an adjustment for most of the world,” Avery said. “In other countries, in something like aerospace training, you don’t touch the engine until year three. We want people to get their hands dirty right away. It’s a very different approach.”

She added: “It will be a learning curve.

Helping their faculty figure it out is something we’ll have to pay attention to.”

The exchange also benefits faculty and students in Spokane, and comports with the college’s goal of extending its global reach. CCS has a Global Education Program that both recruits international students and exposes local students to global activities. In the coming school year, for example, CCS will host four students from Tunisia as part of a U.S. State Department exchange program.

“It’s an opportunity for our faculty to embark on some creative professional development,” Avery said. “The international aspect is something we can’t often find.”

Students, too, will benefit from the Afghan exchange, she added.

“We are looking for ways for our students to interact with the Afghans,” she said. “We don’t know what that will look like. But we want to have some kind of global interaction.”

“That’s the bigger piece for us, getting to do some global activities. Most of our students can’t afford to study abroad, so we’re trying to bring the world to them.”

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