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By Tom Cushing

My Former Student for President

Uploaded: Sep 16, 2016

… of Afghanistan.

One of the several pleasures of teaching at the graduate level is seeing students you once had in-class do great things – maybe even things to which ideas you conveyed might have contributed. I can’t necessarily claim the latter in connection with one of ‘my’ former charges at Golden Gate U., but I thought I’d share my pride in what he’s done – and may yet accomplish in the world well beyond academia.

I’ll not use his name here to avoid widening the target that’s already on his back, because he’s educated in The West, and he’s been instrumental in bringing (otherwise absent) educational opportunities to girls in Afghanistan. There are potent forces abroad in the world and his native land that consider either of those achievements to be grounds for summary execution (indeed, a fellow Fulbright Scholar, educated at Oxford and Stanford Law, was recently gunned-down in an attack on the American University in Kabul, where he was teaching). This is a very, serious business.

Education is a rare and precious commodity in that land of 30 million souls. It is also an early step on the critical path to national development and success. And, as has been recognized by Nobel laureates and former Secretaries of State alike: if you want to make progress, then educate and empower women. For that reason, there are retrograde movements passionately opposed to both.

Moviegoers may recall “Charlie Wilson’s War,” the true-ish story of an otherwise dissolute Texas congressman’s unlikely crusade in aid of the mujahedeen’s expulsion of a Russian invasion of the 1980s. Later peacetime development assistance, however, was not forthcoming, as it became clear that America was much more interested in bringing-down Russki helos, than in bringing-up Afghan educational opportunities. Medieval religious zeal can thrive in soils cultivated with ignorance, and so it has. Too bad we weren’t more far-sighted.

My guy was raised in a valley south of Kabul not long thereafter, an ancestral tribal home for which he feels great affection and allegiance. Most residents live-out their lives within a day’s walk of their birthplace, but with maternal support he excelled at available local schools and migrated to the capital in search of more. Treated as something of a bumpkin by fellow classmates and some professors, he persevered and earned a Fulbright fellowship. He and his mother also founded a program to bring education to local girls in a culture whose traditions do not favor such impertinence.

I first met and worked with him in 2014, during his successful pursuit of a GGU Masters degree in Human Resources. He was a quick study in his non-native language, engaged in class and contributing observations that reflected the contrasts between Afghani law and our version. Part of the course curriculum is to break into teams and ‘negotiate’ the 2013 BART contract (about which there’s a Lot of background information on the web). He and his colleagues founded a tradition of providing a ‘teamie’ pic – demonstrating agreement by smiling in front of a whiteboard filled with terms of the collective bargaining deal they’d struck. It's a photo I'll always enjoy.

In further informal conversations, he demonstrated a pretty clear-eyed appreciation of the cultural contrasts between our lands – the transcendent advantages of stability, the rule of law and affluence, but recognizing our relatively sterile isolation as we rush about, doing our separate things. He clearly longed for the deep connections inherent to his homeland -- foundational roots and an overriding sense of community with each other.

He returned home, started his own non-profit that currently includes several hundred girls in a template school, the pattern of which he has spread to a second kind-of start-up. He’s been teaching HR-related courses at a university with European roots – and he’s had to vary the pattern of his movements on a daily basis, lest he make it easy for some Taliban-related thug. After the American U. attack, he accepted an invitation to gain further global perspectives – including stops in Korea (where education has succeeded handsomely) and Mongolia (another nation of vast scale and small population, facing the challenges of defining and facilitating its future.

That process has brought him back to these parts. He recently addressed a local public affairs organization, sharing perspectives of a native son, subjected to yet another foreign invasion in a history of them that stretches back through the Russian ‘80s debacle, the British Empire, Genghis Khan and even Alexander the Great. Yet he sees hope in an alliance that has survived fifteen years of war, two regimes on each side – and which faces potent local challenges from the surrounding nuclear powers – especially Pakistan, whose homegrown zealots are underwritten by Saudi financing.

He bases much of that motivating optimism on our two countries’ shared commitments to education, especially among the emerging, surviving young leadership of his land. He hopes to pursue an education-related Ph.D. in this country. But not to stay – his passionate intent is to return home when he can, armed with new tools and relationships that will help him spread his educational mission. Indeed, if anyone might be interested in knowing more/perhaps supporting his work, email me and I’ll put you in-touch with him.

Any regular readers may recall that I am very fond of the ‘zen master’ vignette in Charlie Wilson’s War, where the real hero of the film discusses an ongoing flow of events that may lead to further good or bad things happening. My student’s life to-date has fit that narrative pretty well, and he has set himself on a perilous course of tremendous potential gain for the world … or perhaps the most fundamental personal disaster.

Godspeed, my young friend, and “we’ll see.”