Two Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute faculty members were recently honored by the governments of Iraq and Saudi Arabia for their efforts to help students from those countries.

The Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research awarded a medal of appreciation to Director Donald Back for his work building partnerships with Iraqi universities. Instructor Adil Bentahar was recognized by the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission for helping international students acclimate to  studying here.

Tahani Alsandook, the Iraqi cultural attaché, presented the medal to Back during a visit to Blacksburg. The medal is in honor of Back’s work to promote cooperation between Virginia Tech and universities in Iraq, she said. 

Back said Iraqi universities are eager to establish partnerships with their counterparts in the U.S. “Creating sustained connections with people from other cultures helps us solve problems together and leads to greater understanding,” he said.

The institute hosted the Iraqi Kurdistan Rural University Partnership Program, which provided technical assistance to more than a half-dozen Iraqi universities seeking to reform their English-language curricula. Kurdish administrators also developed leadership skills to better address management challenges at their universities.

A frequent visitor to Iraq, Back has written, taught, and presented on internationalization in higher education, higher-education leadership, and the question of Kurdish independence.

Adil Bentahar teaching
Instructor Adil Bentahar leads a class at the Language and Culture Institute.

Bentahar received a certificate of appreciation from Mohammad Aleissa, the Saudi cultural attaché, and Nourah Alnefisah, director of cultural and social affairs for the Saudi Cultural Mission. Partnering with the Saudi Students Club at Virginia Tech, he presented sessions on topics such as resumes and personal statements. Others focused on thornier subjects such as dating and sexual consent.

Club President Ahmed Alfaydi, of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a doctoral student in the Educational Leadership Program in the School of Education, described Bentahar as an excellent collaborator who promotes the interests and engagement of all students. 

A native of Morocco who was once an international student himself, Bentahar said that in addition to strong language skills, students must learn life skills to successfully function in their new community.

"As teachers, we need to reach out beyond the classroom to help them cope with the challenges of being an international student," Bentahar said.

In addition to providing academic preparation, the Language and Culture Institute, part of Outreach and International Affairs, also recruits students internationally on behalf of the university and prepares international students for admission to Virginia Tech. In the past year, its recruiters spent more than 300 days on the road searching for promising students in 19 countries.

Written by Rich Mathieson