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NMSU provides technical assistance to Afghan university

Until the project officially ended June 30, New Mexico State University was deeply involved in providing development assistance to Afghanistan's agricultural and natural resources sectors as the lead institution in the USAID-funded Afghanistan Water, Agriculture and Technology Transfer program.

Ryan White (wearing cap) works with Afghan colleagues Omed Noori (standing) and Khalid Osmani (seated) on the installation and set-up of computers in the teaching lab at Kabul University's Faculty of Agriculture. White was in Afghanistan during the spring semester as part of the NMSU-led Afghanistan Water, Agriculture and Technology Transfer project funded by USAID. (Courtesy photo)

Beginning in 2008, numerous faculty and staff members from NMSU, as well as partner U.S. universities, advised Afghan government ministry and university colleagues on current farming and irrigation practices, set up demonstration projects in several provinces, and worked with U.S. government entities and with non-governmental organizations to help mitigate the effects of war and poverty on food production and the economy.

Based in Kabul, AWATT established close ties with Kabul University's Faculty of Agriculture. One of AWATT's final accomplishments was a major upgrade of that university's capacity for high-tech teaching, research and technology transfer.

Ryan White is an NMSU technology support staff member - and a 2011 alumnus who just finished a degree in criminal justice with an emphasis in information security technology and intelligence studies. He spent 11 weeks in Kabul, Afghanistan, during the spring semester completing the upgrade project.

"The task we were given was to set up a teaching lab and an internet lab for the students of the Faculty of Agriculture," White said. "Combined, that would include 60 computers, all desktop computers, to be separated between the two labs."

Former NMSU staff member and AWATT participant Manny Medrano had actually laid the groundwork for the project, both in terms of planning and initial implementation, prior to White's February arrival. "The work he did was basic IT infrastructure, putting in a reliable network solution, which included running cables between the university's main router, running cables to the different labs," White said.

Designing a system that wouldn't be disabled by power outages was another crucial aspect of the planning Medrano accomplished, according to White. "Power in Afghanistan is shaky at best," he said. "It does go out quite often, so supplying a reliable power solution allows the students to not interrupt their education, or at least have minimal interruptions."

Ryan worked closely with two Afghan AWATT employees, Khalid Osmani and Omed Noori, on implementing the project. In addition to completing the infrastructure upgrade, the team needed to do basic setup on the 60 desktops, to be split between the two facilities. In the teaching lab, this included software to allow the instructor's computer to monitor the other computers, present material to any combination of the student computers, and control the student computers for demonstration purposes.

"The other facility was a basic internet lab, like we would have here at any U.S. university," White said. "Students have free access to the computers, they come in, do research. We also loaded the computers with research material provided by Kabul University, various agriculture research papers and other academic published papers."

"Although the Kabul University activity was not one of our intended outcomes when we began AWATT, both Ryan and Manny contributed greatly to an improved educational experience of Kabul University students," said Jim Libbin, associate dean in NMSU's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and one of the AWATT project's administrators. "They also added a significant new tool for faculty and improved the research effort for members of the Faculty of Agriculture."

While in Afghanistan, White and his colleagues also provided general tech support for the broader AWATT project, particularly in the main Kabul office, but also occasionally at the project's satellite offices in Mazar-e-Sharif in the north and Jalalabad in the east.

This was not White's first experience in the Middle East - he was deployed in Baghdad as a National Guardsman in 2007-2008, participating in "Operation Iraqi Freedom." He was also involved in a previous NMSU technology transfer project in Erbil, Iraq, working with an NMSU team training Iraqis in instructional video production during the summers of 2009 and 2010.

White found Afghan young people to be very interested in the latest high-tech products and his Afghan colleagues wanted to expand their technical knowledge beyond the demands of this particular project. "I think most of my conversations in my down time were with my colleagues, my Afghan colleagues, asking me how to do certain tech operations, why certain things in tech happen, how to fix things," he said. "The younger generation, my generation, is very eager to move on to what the rest of the world is experiencing, at least on the technology side."

One of AWATT's fringe benefits for NMSU turned out to be student recruitment. Khalid Osmani and Omed Noori, White's Afghan colleagues, recently arrived in Las Cruces to pursue undergraduate degrees in computer science.