Red neon crosses. Blue-domed mosques.
For Levi McNeil, those skyline images illustrate the contrast between Korea, where the WSU alumnus has lived for three years, and Afghanistan, which he visited for the first time this spring. The difference was not just between Christianity and Islam, but the influence of religion on daily life.
“Religion seems to play a much more significant role in Afghan culture than in Korean culture,” he said. “In Afghanistan, beliefs play out in everyday activities. The days of the week that you go out, the types of food you prepare, the roles of men and women, the age you get married.”
Levi, a native of Rogers, Arkansas, earned his Ph.D. from WSU in 2009. He is an assistant professor at Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul. He went to Kabul in April at the invitation of his former professor, Joy Egbert, who asked him to assist her in teaching workshops for the Afghan eLearning English Support Project. The College of Education coordinates the U.S.-funded effort to build the capacity of Afghan universities in information technology, English language, and e-learning.
Besides religion, another major difference that Levi noted was classroom behavior. While he encourages his Korean students to share their viewpoints, they often hesitate to explain or defend their positions. Although attitudes seem to be changing, the student’s role in Korea has traditionally been to listen quietly as the teacher imparted knowledge.
“The Afghan students I worked with were not at all shy about giving their opinions,” Levi said.
Most of those students are themselves teachers. They were at the workshops to learn how to share language and technology skills with their own students.
“The Afghan project is about empowering these people so they can do it their own way,” he said. “The workshops were a negotiation between what we were saying and what they practiced on a cultural level, so they could meet their goals.”
Their ambitious goals include teaching all Afghan university courses in English within five years.
Levi expects to return to Afghanistan, probably in September. He’ll hold workshops to familiarize the Afghan teachers with course materials and content developed at WSU. He’ll introduce new classroom technology. And he’ll visit some of the nine English-language learning centers to evaluate their offerings and offer support to faculty.
In April, Joy and Levi used a party game to break the ice with workshop participants. There was much laughter, and the American visitors emerged with the nicknames “Lucky Levi” and “Jolly Joy.”
What impressed Levi most during his visit to Afghanistan? The people.
“In a country that’s been at war forever, it would be easy for them to be very pessimistic and to lose hope,” he said. “But they were positive, they were happy. They were always courteous to me as a foreigner. Also, they took initiative. They knew there was a possibility for change and they were not afraid to work hard.”