As an infantry platoon leader in combat operations in Baghdad, Alex Ambrose felt the weight of two countries on his shoulders. It was March 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq in what was known as Operation Iraqi Freedom. The schoolteacher from New Jersey was deployed to Baghdad to assist with nation-building efforts. With the insurgency, his mission morphed into a mixture of nation building and combat operations. He quickly found himself in the middle of the desert leading 30 men in Humvees through the streets of Baghdad.

It was a very complex and complicated time, recalls Ambrose. At any given moment, his team was prepared to eliminate the enemy. But at the same time, they were working with local officials to help them rebuild, even running polling stations during the first election in 2004. As an educator, he also worked closely with the schools, ultimately winning what he describes as the “hearts and minds” of many people living in Baghdad.

Alex Ambrose in military garb stands in front of a Humvee in the desert. Camels are behind him in the dunes.
Alex Ambrose was deployed to Baghdad to assist with nation-building efforts in 2003.
Ambrose, in military garb, smiles, surrounded by a large group of smiling children.
The New Jersey school teacher worked closely with local officials and schools.

After returning home from war, Ambrose worked as a fourth-grade teacher in downtown Detroit and continued with the Michigan National Guard, training the next batch of officers. When his wife accepted a position at Saint Mary’s College, they relocated to South Bend. He soon completed his doctorate and joined the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning. Once on the front lines of war, now Ambrose finds himself on the front lines of another fight: bringing peace and prosperity to war-torn countries. He’s part of a team of faculty and staff at the University of Notre Dame who are working to empower a university in Afghanistan to not only develop one of the nation’s first master’s degrees, but to do so in the areas of finance and accounting, fields critical to limiting corruption in the country.

“I’ve tried the military route and combat operations can only do so much,” says Ambrose.

“Military may try to kill terrorism or terrorists. But to me, education is where you can get a shot at killing terrorism.”

As a soldier who was driven to serve a higher mission, Ambrose believed the partnership with Balkh University in Afghanistan was an opportunity to come full circle nearly 15 years after combat operations. He was eager to join the two-year venture to enhance the skills and employability of Afghan men and women.

Partnership barriers

A locator map for Balkh University in Afghanistan, about 200 miles northwest from Kabul.

In 2016, a $1.15 million grant funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) was secured by the Notre Dame Initiative for Global Development and the Stayer Center for Executive Education to help faculty at Balkh University, the third-largest university in Afghanistan, develop a master’s program in finance and accountancy. The partnership was supported under the University Support and Workforce Development Program and implemented by FHI 360 — a nonprofit human development organization based in Washington, D.C.

“We are always searching for grant opportunities so that we can connect the good that’s happening at Notre Dame and apply that to other parts of the world,” says Melissa Paulsen, Notre Dame Initiative for Global Development (NDIGD) associate director.

Paulsen served as administrative lead on the project, coordinating and overseeing logistics both on campus and abroad. The Stayer Center directed the academic elements, recruiting faculty and staff from Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business and the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning. Notre Dame International was brought in to help with logistical and facility support on the ground. This multidisciplinary approach was no easy task, with government stakeholders in Washington, D.C., as well as across Afghanistan.

“I think people really underestimate how hard it is to work with a number of different stakeholders and partners, but we really have a dedicated group both on and off campus. We all recognize that education is a significant factor when you’re talking about increasing economic development,” says Paulsen.

Alex Ambrose in front of purple backdrop speaks directly to the camera.
Alex Ambrose: Barriers in the classroom

Notre Dame faculty and staff first met their Balkh counterparts through virtual meetings. It was an eye-opening experience, as they were unaware of day-to-day hurdles that educators in Afghanistan face in the classroom. On any given day, they endure security issues, power outages, limited access to text books and teaching materials, and interrupted internet access. Both groups also realized there would be some language barriers. Courses in the new MFA program were taught in English, but some Balkh faculty were not fluent, requiring interpreters at every session.

The group was faced with another major barrierĀ — a location to meet. Security was a concern for U.S. faculty in Afghanistan and Afghan faculty faced challenges securing visas to the U.S. The group needed to find locations that were accessible to both parties. Notre Dame faculty came up with a creative approach, utilizing the University’s presence in both China and India. The group first met for a partnership co-creative meeting, which took place in Mumbai in January of 2017. The first official faculty residency took place in Beijing in August 2017, followed by three more residencies, supported by the Beijing Global Gateway and the Mumbai Global Center. All four residencies were completed within one year, but the overall project lasted for two years.

Group photo of faculty and staff who attended the final residency in Mumbai.
A group photo of the Notre Dame and Balkh faculty and staff who attended the final residency in Mumbai.
Inside a conference room, a group of faculty and staff sit in a rectangle with a lecturer and a Powerpoint in the front.
At each residency, Notre Dame faculty hosted development workshops and helped Balkh faculty develop effective learning objectives.
Balkh and Notre Dame faculty and staff standing outside the Gateway of India.
Balkh and Notre Dame faculty and staff standing outside the Gateway of India.

At each residency, Notre Dame faculty hosted development workshops and helped Balkh faculty develop effective learning objectives. The topics focused on best practices for assessing and evaluating those objectives, as well as course design. Ambrose worked with content experts at Mendoza to introduce some of the latest learning techniques and state-of-the-art course design.

“They are a very motivated group and were hungry for new methods and practices,” says Ambrose, who pushed digital learning techniques.

“I’m really fighting to help train the trainer, help teach the teacher, and help make that professor more effective so that the future leaders — in this case, those in finance and accounting professions — can make a dent in society through education.”

Designing the “boot camp”-style residency program was no easy task, and it took a multidisciplinary approach. Robin Kistler, director of non-degree programs at Stayer, described the experience as an exercise in flexibility, for both Notre Dame and Afghan faculty.

Sticky notes that read Financial Investments, Auditing, Financial institutions and markets, finacial modeling, etc.
The residency focused on best practices for assessing and evaluating effective learning objectives, as well as course design.

“Instead of us just sharing our syllabus, our faculty helped them actually see what they needed to do in order to come up with their own learning outcomes in the context of the Afghanistan business community,” says Kistler.

The state of the economy in Afghanistan is exactly what attracted professor of finance Jeff Bergstrand to the project. As an international trade economist, he saw an opportunity to help develop business expertise in a way that helps move the country forward.

“If you advance business, you can advance the standard of living and get out of poverty,” says Bergstrand.

“If you get out of poverty, the country can move forward and that dramatically raises the prospects for peace.”

After all, peace and prosperity through a stabilized economy is what attracted Notre Dame faculty to this international development project. They worked tirelessly over two years to connect with and empower their counterparts in Afghanistan with modern teaching methods. The connections grew stronger with every meeting, as faculty from two different worlds came together with a common goal to advance a country through education.

Jeff Bergstrand holds a cup of coffee in one hand and looks down at papers held in his other hand.
Notre Dame Professor of Finance Jeff Bergstrand was one of 15 faculty who worked over two years to connect and empower Balkh faculty with modern teaching methods.
A group of men and women chat around a table.
At each residency, Notre Dame faculty hosted development workshops and helped Balkh faculty develop effective learning objectives.

“You really see that people are the same everywhere — fundamentally good and fundamentally trying to move forward,” says Bergstrand. “They’re not hinged to the past.”

Well-versed in the history of Afghanistan, Bergstrand found himself intrigued by the personal stories of the junior faculty at Balkh. Many of them were born into war and political instability under the Taliban. In one of the poorest countries in the world, the volatile economy took a toll on the most vulnerable — the poor and unemployed, a large part of the Afghan population.

“I just saw war and nothing else”

Mohammad Haroon Asadi lived through the tumultuous politics and the economic collapse. In 1986, Asadi was born during the war and vividly remembers a life full of fluctuation. At a young age, he worked in the market in order to provide income for his family so they could eat. There was no education because there were no schools. His family fled the country in hopes of a better future and more stability.

Mohammad Haroon Asadi in front of an orange backdrop speaks directly to camera.
Mohammad Haroon Asadi’s story: Born into war

“Everything just collapsed and we were in a bad situation,” remembers Asadi.

His family eventually moved back, as Afghanistan began rebuilding with the support of other countries. Asadi’s family encouraged him to go to college and pursue his dream of working in higher education. After returning from Germany with a master’s degree, Asadi was appointed senior professor assistant at Balkh University. He’s now working toward a doctorate degree.

“I was not expected to be at this level,” says Asadi.

While Asadi and other faculty are constantly being recruited from universities outside of Afghanistan, there’s a strong commitment to bring positive change to their country. They’re focused on the next generation, hoping to use education as a tool to build a more qualified labor and establish a new financial system and marketplace in Afghanistan.

“If we don’t use this opportunity, I’m sure that tomorrow, no one will think about us,” says Asadi.

After decades of war, Afghanistan is moving toward a more secure and stable future, though significant economic challenges still remain. With the influx of Afghan refugees returning to the country and nearly 400,000 new job seekers entering the workforce, the already high unemployment rate continues to grow, according to the World Bank. The USAID states that insecurity, corruption and limited business enabling infrastructure threaten efforts to establish a thriving economy that creates jobs and much-needed revenue to the Afghan government.

Afghanistan, by the numbers

10,000+ civilian deaths and injuries in 2017. 173,000+ internally displaced by conflict in 2018. GDP per capita in Afghanistan is $590 compared to $59,530 in United States. Life expectancy at birth is 62 for male, 65 for female in Afghanistan, compared to 76 and 81 in United States. 55% of Afghans live in poverty in 2016-17. Unemployment rate is 24%, and adult literacy rate is 35%.
SOURCES: U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Efforts, Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey, World Bank

“Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world,” says Bergstrand. “I believe a lot of the instability we’ve seen in Afghanistan is attributed to poverty. If we can alleviate that poverty, we can get them out of that situation.”

That’s why USAID is supporting the Afghan government’s efforts to empower the private sector, increase exports and create jobs. It’s also playing a role in the development of educational programs in Afghanistan, funding the MFA program at Balkh University through its University Support and Workforce Development Program.

Mission accomplished

On Sept. 18, 2018, just two months after the final residency program, 27 students walked across the stage at Balkh University in Afghanistan. A special ceremony was held to honor the first cohort of Master of Finance and Accounting (MFA) graduates, attended by the deputy governor of Balkh Province, along with heads of private and public universities, and officials from government organizations.

Graduates are expected to work in private and public institutions, providing a higher level of accounting and financial analysis and developing new policies for Afghanistan that are in line with international standards. Among the new graduates, 15 were faculty members of different public universities. Eight of the graduates were females, a particular aim of the MFA program.

The first cohort of MFA graduates throw their caps into the air, holding diplomas. A banner behind them reads Graduation and Handover Ceremony of the Master of Finance and Accounting, and has a University of Notre Dame academic mark on it.
Two men shake hands on stage at the graduation ceremony.
Graduates, in cap and gown, sit facing the stage where speakers sit and the banner with the University of Notre Dame academic mark hangs.

In September 2018, 27 Master of Finance and Accounting graduates walked across the stage at Balkh University in Afghanistan.

While no one from Notre Dame was able to be present at the graduation ceremony, Notre Dame’s impact on this program was felt. Besides the large logo placed on the banner as a backdrop to the ceremony, the chancellor of Balkh University expressed his gratitude to the University for its efforts in facilitating a historic program.

United by mission and vision, both universities focused on using education as a way to advance an individual, community and, in this case, an entire country. While there were differences in culture, language and faith, both universities were united by aspirations to make positive changes that will give hope to the next generation.

“On behalf of the Afghan society, we are very pleased,” says Masood Shah, who represents the University Support and Workforce Development Program in Afghanistan.

“This is just the start. We hope that Balkh University will take this initiative and will sustain this quality for the future,” concludes Shah.

Notre Dame faculty and staff hope to see more capital investment for economic development and more women entering the field of education. But most of all, they’re hoping this higher level of education leads to more peace and opportunity for people living in Afghanistan.

“I think this will be the most important project that I’ve been a part of and I promise you that I will take these lessons back and share with others,” says Ambrose, addressing the Balkh faculty during the final residency program in August. “You never give up. You just keep fighting.”

It’s the fight that Ambrose admires the most, which is why the Army veteran feels called to this new mission. His approach is less tactical and more judicious this time around. Ambrose is back on the front lines, empowering educators to fight corruption with modern teaching methods and ultimately liberating the people of Afghanistan.

“It has been amazing to see our University mobilize across the corners of campus in support of this mission,” says Ambrose. “I am proud that 17 years after the war started in Afghanistan, Notre Dame is still committed to working in solidarity with the people of Afghanistan for the greater common good.”