The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

July 12, 2012

PSU professor returns after visiting Baghdad to assist teachers

By Emily Younker

PITTSBURG, Kan. — Dean Cortes, an economics professor at Pittsburg State University, recently returned from a monthlong stint in Baghdad, where he worked with local business professors to help improve the quality of education in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

“The Iraqi people I met there were very kind, and they only wanted the best for their country,” Cortes said Thursday. “I really admire that, especially with these professors who are trying to continue on and hope for something that’s normal, trying to bring back a sense of normalcy and then work for progress and development.”

Cortes spent most of June participating in a project sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development, working primarily with Iraqi university professors to help them update their curriculum and teaching methods. He first learned of the project last fall, when he was given a program flier and encouraged to pass it among his colleagues in the Department of Economics, Finance and Banking, of which he is the chairman.

Unsurprisingly, interest wasn’t very high, he said.

“Of course, you can imagine the reaction when they saw that it was going to be in Iraq,” he said. “They thought nobody was going to seriously consider it just because of the location.”

He requested more information from the program’s sponsors and ultimately submitted his own resume.

“We thought it would be an interesting and exciting new adventure,” said Cortes, who has lived in Japan and taught in Taiwan and Paraguay.

Cortes arrived in Baghdad on June 4 and presented his five-day workshop to about 50 Iraqi business professors during the last week of the month. His presentation, on PowerPoint slides in English and translated into Arabic, took place at Al-Mansour University College. Traveling to and from the university, Cortes donned a bullet-proof vest and rode in the middle vehicle of a three-vehicle security convoy that took a different route each day.

During the workshop, Cortes talked to the group of Iraqi professors about current developments in finance and ways to impact student learning. Several in the group spoke English; two translators helped with the discussion among the rest.

Cortes said the professors asked many questions. Complaining of student absenteeism, decreasing student performance in the classroom, and constraints such as poor access to technology and heavy governmental control, they sought better ways to reach their students, he said.

“I saw my job as essentially trying to help these teachers become more effective teachers,” he said. “They seemed very eager and very thirsty for new ideas. I was teaching them content, too, but I was focusing more on how to teach the content to their students, focusing a lot more on teaching methods.”

While in Baghdad, Cortes lived in a residential compound housing participants in USAID projects. Surrounded by concrete blocks and guarded by South African and Iraqi forces, the compound included a dining hall, swimming pool, grocery store, barbershop, clinic and sports court where Cortes braved the 115-degree heat to play basketball, he said.

Cortes said his experience in Baghdad was a positive one that left him hopeful for the future of Iraq.

“Iraq is trying to rebuild itself in all facets of life, and so my feeling is (that) my visiting over there and my working with this particular project, I contributed a little bit and did something a little bit positive to help them, at least with their higher education aspects,” he said.