I’m well aware that beyond international education circles, the Institute of International Education is not exactly a household name. So you can imagine my surprise when, on my first trip to Libya in 2006 to explore restarting scholarship programs with the country, I met numerous people who were intimately familiar with IIE. I will never forget my first meeting at Libya’s National Oil Company, when a gentleman greeted me in near-flawless English. It turns out that he had studied in the United States in the 1970s on an IIE-administered scholarship program. Not only did he have fond memories of his studies and the university that hosted him, but he regaled us with stories of his arrival to the United States and the warm welcome he received from his IIE program officer, whose name he remembers to this day.
It turns out that many Libyans in the ’70s and early ’80s had studied in the United States on programs run by IIE and other organizations. Almost universally, they spoke of their time abroad with great fondness while also expressing regret that their younger colleagues were not able to have similar experiences.
Even though more than 3,000 Libyans were studying in the United States in 1979/80, only 38 were able to do so in 1999/2000, according to numbers from the Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. During this time, Libya also stopped teaching English in the schools; as a result, graduating classes had much to catch up on if they were going to take advantage of the international educational opportunities available to them in the United States at the end of the embargo.
It was with that frame of reference that I made my first trip to the new Libya in April to restart and expand scholarship programs that we had begun before the revolution. Even though I had reason for optimism, I was unsure of what I would find. My colleagues at IIE and I were traveling with a delegation of business leaders looking to advance trade and business interests in the country, so I expected that education would take a backseat at most of our meetings.
In reality, it turned out to be the exact opposite. Almost every Ministry that we met with spoke about the importance of sending students abroad for higher education. Many of the Ministers and Deputy Ministers had studied in the United States, including Dr. Naeem M. Adburrahman Al-Gheriany, Minister of the Libyan Transitional Government in the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, whose exclusive interview with IIE you can watch on the left. As part of the process for building the new Libya, these Ministers and Deputy Ministers want to make sure that the younger generation will be able to have similar experiences and take back what they learned abroad to help their country.
Libya will be interesting to follow over the next several years, primarily because it will allow us to see the power of international education to facilitate change and development. Supporting scholarships, promoting research, developing vocational schools, expanding training opportunities and reestablishing international linkages are clear priorities of the government. The country has vast needs in these areas, and the government seems willing to commit them to the education of their population.
I look forward to going back to Libya in a few years and being welcomed by a whole new generation that has had life-changing international education experiences.