K-State Partnerships with Kabul University and Balkh University, 2007-2010

Suzanne Donnelly (In-Country Director, English Partnership, Kabul University/Kansas State University) and Mary Copple (Associate Professor, K-State Department of Modern Languages) at Kabul University in 2009

One of the first official documents I signed when I became Department Head in June 2007 was the “Partnership Contract Agreement for English Faculty at Balkh University in Mazar-e Sharif, Northern Afghanistan.”

I inherited this contract, and a similar one for Kabul University, along with my new administrative role. Both projects were funded in cooperation with the World Bank as part of the Strengthening of Higher Education Project (SHEP) to assist institutions of higher education, with additional support from Kansas State University itself. 

I’ve been thinking about these projects many times since mid-August and the recent events in Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif, and other areas of Afghanistan. Even though more than ten years has passed since adding my signature to the document, the experience is sharp in my mind as an educator and as an administrator.

Back in 2007, signing the contract felt both significant and daunting, given the scope of assistance needed.

Site visits conducted by K-State representatives in 2006 showed how Kabul University, a vibrant flagship institution in the 1970s, had become, by the fall of the Taliban in 2001, quite literally stripped bare, as the assessment explained:

After the Russians left Afghanistan, Kabul University was gutted to house barracks for soldiers fighting the civil war…. During the civil war, the university became a battlefield.  Walls were pockmarked with bullet holes, and most windows were broken.  At one point all copper wiring on the campus was stripped and sold.  Looters removed all laboratory equipment and books. … The Faculty of Languages and Literature building, in which the Department of English is housed, is in very poor condition. There is no heat and little overhead lighting.  The floors and walls are in disrepair…. The English Department is unable to service the needs of the faculties.  Today there are only enough teachers to provide classes for freshmen and sophomores.  It is not unusual to have 200 students in the English courses taught in the other faculties.

The situation at Balkh University, founded in 1988 and located 400 miles from Kabul in Mazar-e Sharif, had some similar challenges. Offices and classrooms had poor lighting and no heating, even during the extreme cold of winter,  prompting the university to cease instruction for those months. Many classrooms used for English classes lacked electrical outlets and functioning blackboards. Little space and few instructors limited the number of students taught at one time, while the English Department itself didn’t have an office. 

Renovation of the physical infrastructure formed part of each grant project. However, the main focus was revising the curriculum for English language instruction and enhancing the educational and professional resources of the faculties.

For the next years, Afghanistan was always on my mind.


Camel Train with Moon over the Mountains” (photo taken by David Murphy: “Late afternoon, 31 August 2009, just south of Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan at the foothills of the Hindu Kush Mountains. Camels transporting grain from the city through the mountains.”)

Between 2007 and 2010, at least twice a month and sometimes once a week, I gathered with other members of our K-State team to work on the projects’ goals — in particular, I joined faculty members Bob Corum and Mary Copple in Modern Languages and Mary Wood, Bev Earles, and Abby Franchitti in the English Language Program, along with other core members of the project. These meetings often included a conference call where, 9 1/2 hours ahead and electricity permitting, our in-country instructors and program coordinators — including Suzanne Donnelly (pictured above with Mary Copple) and Ketty Reppert in Kabul, and David Murphy (MA ’08) in Mazar-e Sharif — were on the ground, reporting back about the dynamic security situation (Is it safe to travel outside the house or university that day? What is the planned evacuation route by land out of the country, if the situation worsens?) as well as their progress towards the grant deliverables. 

Through remote work and periodic returns to Kansas State, the in-country teams worked with the faculties of the English Departments at both universities on a range of tasks: curriculum revision and development; support for strategic planning; preparation of facilities; upgrading library holdings; enhancing faculty skills; and facilitating teacher-training and mentoring by K-State faculty. Selected faculty members from Afghanistan also traveled to Kansas State to complete professional development or an M.A. degree in Teaching English as a Foreign Language, a program track in Modern Languages created in response to the grant projects.

Working together, we could help the English Departments at Kabul University and Balkh University to develop modern undergraduate educational programs that would meet international standards.


“Balkh’s City Walls” (photo: David Murphy, taken between 2008-2010)

After three years, the World Bank/SHEP projects came to a close. Thanks to the hard work of so many, both here at Kansas State and in Afghanistan, we were able to realize some of the vision that inspired Dr. Yar Ebadi, then Dean and Professor of the College of Business Administration (and proud alumnus and former faculty member of Kabul University), to pursue these opportunities.

The experience of those three years, though, has lingered — in the social media posts of colleagues involved in the projects, in the 15+ inches of hard-copy files and the volume of digital files mapping the projects’ trajectory and deliverables, and every time I hear a news report about Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif.


“Burka, Boy, and Birds” (photo: David Murphy, taken between 2008-2010)

I hope all those involved with the projects are safe and well and that, some day in the near future, the work can continue.

— Karin Westman, Department Head

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