Making a difference in the Middle East
August 29, 2013
When Jill Derby was offered a position as a trustee at the American University of Iraq Sulaimani, she didn't hesitate to accept.
"I didn't even let them finish the question," she said in an interview earlier this month.
The opportunity allows Derby to combine her experience in university governance and her love of the Middle East.
Derby, who calls Carson Valley home with her husband veterinarian Steve Talbot, served on the Nevada Board of Regents for 18 years, including three terms as president.
While serving as chair, she assisted in the startup of Nevada State College.
That challenge attracted her to the position at AUIS that was founded in 2007.
"I know something about starting a new college," she said.
The university, located in the Kurdistan region, is Iraq's only nonprofit, independent, American-style university.
Derby said all classes are taught in English despite the fact that students come from all areas in Iraq and elsewhere.
"It's very inspiring to see students representing all ethnic groups. It's a mosaic. Since the university is located in the Kurdistan region, 60 percent of the students are Kurds," she said.
The student body numbers about 1,000. In addition to Iraq, students come from Egypt, Syria and Iran.
"We want more international students," she said. "We want to develop an exchange program, and are implementing the infrastructure to support that. I'm such a big advocate of study abroad. You get a sense of how big the world is out there."
For people whose only knowledge of the Middle East comes from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Derby said acquaintances often ask her if she is safe.
"The first thing people ask me is, 'Are you scared?'" she said. "People know very little about the country and are left with the perception there is a fair amount of violence."
That extends to the student population as well.
"These kids all get along fine," she said. "They represent all ethnic groups. It's really quite delightful to see them. They counteract the stereotypes."
Derby said more than one-third of the students are women.
The university offers coursework in international studies, journalism, business administration, informational technology, literature, English and engineering.
"The university offers a very rich student life. For being a school which is only six years old, it's impressive," she said.
In addition to Derby the board of trustees is an international cross-section of scholars and experts in the Middle East.
In May, trustees announced the appointment of Dawn Dekle as the university's new president. She is the first woman president of an Iraqi university.
In March, the university offered the first Sulaimani Forum which organizers hope will be an annual event.
The theme, "The Changing Geopolitics of the Middle East," covered the social and economic repercussions of energy policies, the emerging role of women leaders, and the global effects of the unrest and change in the region.
Derby was instrumental in organizing the women's leadership panel and chaired the discussion.
"For me the highlight is something that often gets hidden. Women are playing a really important role in democracy in the Middle East," she said.
"At the university, we see ourselves training leaders for the whole region, thought leaders, critical thinkers," she said.
Derby, a fourth generation Nevadan, said she developed her passion for the Middle East at an early age, eager to experience the "cradle of civilization."
"I grew up on National Geographics," she said.
She attended the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, San Francisco, where she obtained her first bachelor's degree. After living in the Bay Area, teaching, and traveling, she took a job with a company in Saudi Arabia where she lived for three years.
Derby learned Arabic and developed an interest in cultural anthropology. Upon returning to the United States, she earned a second bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, followed by her master's degree and her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology with a specialization in Middle Eastern cultures, both from the University of California, Davis.
Serving as a trustee requires yearly trips to the campus.
"When I go back, it's so familiar, the people are so welcoming, and hospitable," she said.
"People are the same everywhere. What we share is a common humanity. It seems so strange to think of them as different. They just have different customs, habits of living."
After serving the Board of Regents, Derby became a governance consultant with the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities.
She received a congressional appointment to The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity which advises the U.S. Secretary of Education on matters related to postsecondary or higher accreditation.