Monday, March 13, 2006

What's the Taliban's former foreign envoy doing at Yale?

Special programs welcome grown-up students to Yale
From Afghani envoy to Buddhist ascetic, adult Yalies keep a low profile.
BY THERESE LIM in The Yale Herald

At Yale, it is commonly understood that the student next to you could be a high school valedictorian, a chess champion, or a musical prodigy; few Elis, however, would suspect their classmate to be a former Taliban official.

Yet one of this year’s freshmen, 27-year-old Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi ’09, served for years as an Afghani diplomat for the Taliban government. Today he studies Political Science in WLH next to kids fresh out of Exeter.

Sayed Hashemi ’09, was foreign envoy for the Taliban before enrolling at Yale this year.
Hashemi is but one of many older, non-traditional Yalies enrolled in Yale’s Nondegree Students Program, one of two Yale academic programs designed to accommodate students who cannot study full-timedue to other commitments. The other program, the Eli Whitney Students Program, operates under a similar structure but allows participants to graduate with a Yale degree.

According to the Yale admissions office, the bar for admission is set high so that potential part-time Yalies must be as qualified as their full-schedule counterparts. “All candidates must present evidence of high academic potential, maturity, and clear motivation for their proposed course of study.” Yale College Dean Peter Salovey, GRD ’86, agreed: “The [special students programs]are very selective.” Yet despite the programs’ pursuit of excellence, few Yale students evenrealize this small, select group of part-time peers is here. And so students such as Hashemi, with a lifetime of experience, continue to study under the radar.

Many such students have come to the University after spending much of their lives out of school. Rich Horne, BK ’08, age 33, served as a marine in Kosovo. Bricklin Dwyer, ES ’07, age 25, managed 26 employees at a computer company by the time he was 16. Brooks Prouty, CC ’06, age 34, cloistered himself for five years in a Zen Buddhist monastery. And one of the programs’ few high-profile representatives, 39-year-old Mike Richter, CC ’06, a goalie for the New York Rangers for 15 years, won an Olympic silver medal.

These students, for diverse reasons, either chose not to go to college right after high school or dropped out soon after enrolling.Every year, to develop and maintain a diverse student body with a wide range of stories to tell, the University accepts 30 to 40 to the twoprograms.“These are students who, while they have other aspects of their lives, are fully committed to Yale and to fulfilling its requirements,” William Whobrey, assistant dean of Yale College, in charge of both special-student programs, said. “They want to be part of the Yale community and they feel they have something to offer to that community.”

Yale is hardly alone: Other universities also offer special programs, such as Harvard’s Extension School, for students who did not go straight to college after high school. However, Yale officials stress the difference between Yale’s program and those of its peers. “It’s not another school with different professors, [nor do we] adjust the schedule to meet [individual] schedules,” Whobrey said. “You need to buy into Yale.”

Mike Richter, CC ’06, came to Yale after goal tending for the New York Rangers.And although these students admit that it can sometimes be difficult to balance the time commitments of attending school with living normal lives, they say the quality of the education they receive at Yale warrants the energy. “I wanted to go to the best school possible,” Richter, an Ethics, Politics and Economics major who also volunteers as an assistant coach for the men’s hockey team, said. “Brown and UPenn had returning adult programs, but Yale was clearly the best place to go academically.”
But students enroll-ed in the special-student programs face distinct challenges.

Since Yaledoes not extend financial aid to these students, financing a Yale education is a common difficulty among the students in both the Eli Whitney Program and the Nondegree Program. Classes for these students cost $2,300 apiece. At one point, Ben Harrell, TD ’06, an Eli Whitney student, found himself commuting to New Haven twice every week from a regular job and life in Hartford. “I’d pile all my classes on Mondays and Wednesdays,” he said. “I never had the time to go to any sections, to go see professors, and I was limited as to what courses I could take.”

According to Whobrey, the decision not to offer financial aid was made with the program’s inception in 1977. He said, however, that the cost of the program has never seemed prohibitive to the Yale administration. “This year’s $2,300 per class is significantly less than regular tuition, around the 60 to 65 percent range,” Whobrey said.

Non-traditional students also face struggles integrating socially into a campus that educates students nearly a decade younger. Since many special-program students have families and regular jobs and are not allowed to live on campus, they face challenges of assimilation. To ease this problem, Eli Whitney students—but not Nondegree ones—are assigned to residential colleges. Despite living on their own, they are welcome to use the college’s facilities, purchase a meal plan, and play IMs. But most surveyed students said they’d prefer to spend time with their family, if they have one, or on their studies. Some, however, have joined extracurricular organizations, such as the Yale Economic Review.

This willingness to shun the spotlight in favor of personal pursuits perhaps reflects in the degree of privacy that Hashemi, enrolled in the Nondegree Program, has maintained for himself. Though Hashemi declined to be interviewed, due to an upcoming profile in the New York Times Magazine, his friend, Saad Rizvi, PC ’08, described him as a strong and devoted student, one who consistently takes upper-level seminars despite his first-year standing. “Considering all the experience he’s had, he’s done well at [the courses],” Rizvi said.

Hashemi, who has studied international development and political science at Yale, toured the U.S. in May 2001, when he met with U.S. State Department officials and gave talks at several universities, including Yale. “He’s a very intense person, very passionate about what needs to be done to improve [Afghanistan],” Rizvi said.
Hashemi, now 27 years old, fled Afghanistan when he was a child and did not return until 1995, when he joined the Taliban. Working as an envoy under Afghanistan’s foreign ministry, he represented the country in various conferences and speaking engagements abroad, where he often had to defend his government’s policies in the face of criticism.

When asked about Hashemi’s political opinions, Rizvi answered, “He has views, but his views are about how to improve things, like education. We talk about how to deal with the future and the problems in that part of the world,” he said, referring to South Asia and the Middle East.
Like fellow non-traditional students Horne and Richter, Hashemi has fought adversities that reach beyond roommate spats and laundry blues; it is, perhaps, this same fighting spirit that Yale seeks in students who will bring new perspectives to the table. “The experience [Hashemi] comes with allows him to speak on things with authority,” Rizvi said. “He knows what he’s talking about.”