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UGA aids higher education reforms in Tunisia

By Cat Holmes
University of Georgia

A partnership is underway between the University of Georgia and the Tunisian Republic to assist with Tunisia’s higher education reform. So far, it’s working smoothly.

The venture is the brainchild of Takoi Hamrita, an electrical engineer in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. True to her profession, she has taken a systems approach to what easily could have been a narrowly-focused project.

Hamrita began in 2003 with a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Instead of using the grant to address just one aspect of higher education in Tunisia, she decided to look at the whole picture to determine where the money could best be put to use.

“I have tried to follow a holistic, integral approach with this partnership,” Hamrita said. “I wanted to build a strong connection with Tunisia’s higher education system and to engage as many entities at UGA as possible to maximize the chances for a sustainable, long-term relationship.

Visits between interested parties from both countries have been critical.

Most recently, a group of 30 Tunisian university professors visited UGA for training in e-learning and higher education management.

" “We shared how UGA works, from student affairs to public service and outreach,” Hamrita said. “But telling them how we do things here is only a starting point. A lot of work must be done at many different levels to effect change in Tunisia.”

Hamrita grew up in Tunisia and has lived in the U.S. since she graduated from high school. Living in and receiving an education in both countries has helped her work with both sides of the partnership.

“I understand both realities because I am embedded in both communities,” she said.

Natural goals for Americans can present social, economic or political barriers for Tunisians, so care has been taken not to impose U.S. standards.

“It is important to work within the system and to understand its parameters,” she said.

The Tunisian Ambassador to the U.S., Hatem Atallah, put these concerns into a larger context when he spoke at UGA in April.

“The [Middle East] must have and retain ownership of reform programs because the process must be based on the reality of each country, and the capacity and the pace of each country to absorb change and adapt to new situations as they occur,” he said.

“Before the Tunisian professors left UGA, we identified together priority areas for them to work on once they were back,” Hamrita said. One of these priorities was to promote public service and outreach programs.

Public service and outreach is a concept most Americans take for granted. “We are accustomed to reaping the benefits of the latest research and development,” Hamrita said. However, the idea is not widespread in Tunisia.

“As a citizen of UGA, I have had the opportunity to participate in numerous workshops and faculty development programs like the Lilly Fellowship,” Hamrita said. “There is a culture here of investing in faculty to develop their leadership skills. I wouldn’t be able to direct this partnership in the way that I have without it and it is this very culture that I would like to see develop in Tunisia.”

Hamrita will travel to Tunisia at the end of June to meet with the Tunisian minister of higher education and other university officials. She will follow up on the public service and outreach initiative and discuss future plans.

“We’re trying to make things happen at the national level,” Hamrita said. “Our pilot must impress a wide circle and engage leaders from the beginning. To make public service and outreach, for example, part of the culture of Tunisia, everyone must buy into it.”

(Cat Holmes was a science writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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