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Brad Nolen (blue jacket), pictured with a group of his students from Kabul International Academy in Afghanistan. (All photographs courtesy of Brad Nolen.)

COLLEGE STATION --

A little eight-year-old Afghan boy hugged Brad Nolen's leg tightly. Nolen had just dismissed his third-grade science class in Kabul, the capital of the war-torn country of Afghanistan, and the child was ecstatic about the experiment he had just finished in class -- an ecosystem in a bottle.

Although it was nothing more than dirt, grass and a few twigs inside an empty plastic cylinder, the child was overjoyed with his fascinating creation. It was one of the first times Nolen, a 2008 Texas A&M University chemistry graduate, realized his mission to spend at least a year of his life teaching in the down-trodden country was personally sparking a child's enthusiasm to learn.

"I just thought, 'This is the first time I've ever been hugged by a little kid,'" he recalls. "'This is nice.'"

Nolen has been in Kabul since August, living and working in a medium-security compound roughly equivalent to two city blocks in a southwest region of the city known as Kart-e-Char. Nearly 8,000 miles removed from his hometown of Carrollton, Texas, Nolen says he has found his passion helping to provide an education for underprivileged children who might otherwise have gone without one as an instructor at the International School of Kabul (ISK), where he teaches elementary-level science, seventh-grade life sciences, ninth-grade biology and 11th- and 12th-grade physiology.

Initially known as Kabul International Academy (KIA), the ISK was established in 2003 to serve the children of four major groups: Afghan families returning from living outside the country; the international aid community; the diplomatic community; and international business families. What began with elementary-level classes for only eight students has grown so substantially that there are currently plans for a new, permanent campus. Last May the school celebrated a major milestone when members of its inaugural graduating class in 2007 graduated from college.

"We're the only school in the country that's doing what we're doing," Nolen notes. "It feels good to know that the teaching I'm doing here really matters. That's what helps get me up in the morning."

The school "building" in which Nolen makes his daily difference is little more than a makeshift row of houses that have been remodeled to resemble a school as closely as possible, with at least one room in each house designated for a different subject. The campus is just big enough to accommodate Nolen, his modest-sized unit of roughly 40 co-workers and the approximately 360 children who attend class there.

Nolen says despite the country's more public struggles, Afghanistan remains a nation that values quality education and the teachers who make it possible in spite of the many hardships and obstacles. Each morning he is eagerly greeted by his pupils -- a proper greeting being a genuine display of respect, according to Afghan custom. Following this exchange, it's all educational from there.

Thanks to grant money from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Nolen's school has been adequately equipped with laptop computers, textbooks, copiers and other vital resources. In addition to traditional textbooks and paper handouts, he prepares labs and shows videos -- just about anything that would be expected of a typical American science class. He says the investment (both his and the USAID's) is already paying off: His students can't seem to get enough.

"The kids here are all so eager to learn, and they're ready," he adds. "They all do their homework, and I don't even have to try; they just do it. I feel like I can really be a teacher here."

Nolen admits he had no idea what he wanted to be when he enrolled at Texas A&M in August 2004 to began his collegiate career. Devoid of specific professional goals, he drifted between majors, first choosing chemical engineering and ultimately chemistry. Even after selecting chemistry and excelling in his coursework to the point that he earned a prestigious Dow Aggies Endowed Scholarship in Science, Nolen still wasn't sure what he would do with the degree. While toiling in a laboratory somewhere wasn't appealing, neither was being a to-do man for a large company. Teaching was the only other option that piqued his interest.

As a junior at Texas A&M, Nolen was selected for the Texas A&M Public Policy Internship Program, under which he interned for a semester in Washington, D.C. with the Association of American Universities (Texas A&M is one of its 61 member institutions) working on physical science policy and science education issues. This experience, coupled with that of previous summers spent as a counselor at Camp of the Hills in the Texas hill country west of Austin working with underprivileged children, led him to apply to Teach for America (TFA), a non-profit organization that aims to eliminate educational inequality by recruiting "the nation's most promising future leaders" to teach for two or more years in low-income communities in the U.S. It seemed to be the most direct route into education, and in 2008, after graduating with cum laude honors from Texas A&M, he was sent to an inner-city school in Charlotte, N.C. to teach biology.

Leading a classroom of young minds in an urban school setting was a unique but sometimes trying experience, Nolen says. Beyond the day-to-day demands inherent in instructing and inspiring, Nolen felt mired by a mounting sea of red tape and restrictions -- paperwork, documentation and myriad measurements and standards that became part and parcel of U.S. public schools under No Child Left Behind.

At the conclusion of his two-year commitment in Charlotte in May 2010, Nolen decided to give teaching another try in a new environment through Oasis International Schools, an educational program that establishes and maintains American-style, English-speaking schools around the world, including the ISK.

Through Oasis, he was given two choices as to where he could teach: China or Afghanistan. If Nolen had to dedicate at least the next year of his life -- thousands of miles from home, no less -- to educating foreign children, he says he wanted to make sure the sacrifices would be worthwhile. After consulting his wife Kayla and their respective families (who adamantly urged the couple to pick China), the Nolens began packing for the ISK in Afghanistan.

"We'll be staying at least two years, and now I feel like we could stay longer at this point," Nolen says. "Learning English, as well as the education they are receiving, is going to open so many doors for them down the road."

Though Nolen has settled into his role as an educator in an embattled country, his first view of Afghanistan upon exiting his plane onto the tarmac last August left him admittedly anxious and unsure of his most recent educational life-leap. The armed soldiers and guards pacing within and around the compound in which Nolen now resides is a stark reflection of the less-than-favorable reputation that's branded Afghanistan for the past 30 years.

However, Nolen says the situation is not as bad as television often portrays. Although most definitely a country at war, Kabul is bustling with life characterized by a pretty normal routine. Carts and cars zip down busy streets, accompanied by the occasional military vehicle or two. Everywhere there are merchants beckoning patrons into their crowded shops. In fact, Nolen and the other residents of the compound are allowed to venture into the city whenever they please as long as the color-coded security level remains at "blue."

The civilization has already left a lasting impression on both Nolen and his wife Kayla, who graduated from Baylor University with a bachelor's of arts degree in international studies and works as an administrative assistant for the elementary school. What was once a stinging culture shock has given way to familiarity, thanks in part to the open-armed welcome of his students, with many of whom they have formed close bonds. These days, it's not out of the ordinary for the Nolens to be invited to the homes of his students for dinner with them and their families.

"One thing that's great about living overseas is that it gives you a chance to examine yourself and the culture you come from," Nolen says. "It kind of allows us to think about our own values. I hope that when this is over, I'll have come away with a bigger view of people and the world."

Conversely, Nolen's heritage and culture are equally intriguing to the Afghan children. He is quick to take advantage of any opportune moment that allows him to discuss his alma mater, even encouraging his science-oriented seniors to consider Texas A&M when choosing a college. In addition, he notes that his Aggie Ring is a constant source of amazement, the symbolism of which Nolen enjoys explaining for them. They even got a first-hand lesson in classic Texas college football rivalries when another teacher -- a Texas Tech University graduate -- once taught Nolen's class to greet him with, "Hook 'em, Horns!" as a prank.

Nolen says he often reflects on his undergraduate years and remembers how his seemingly arduous classes eventually taught him to work hard without expecting an immediate payoff -- a lesson he's now bringing to his students in Afghanistan. He admits his science classes are admittedly demanding by design and that his students are required to put forth considerable effort to earn an 'A.'

"I believe in holding high expectations for your students, no matter their background or personal difficulties," Nolen says. "Setting a realistic but ambitious goal is really the key to good teaching. If you don't have a vision for your class, you don't have a game plan."

To learn more about the International School of Kabul (ISK), visit http://iskafghan.org/index.html.

For more information on teaching opportunities in chemistry and other subject areas through the Texas A&M College of Science, go to http://aggieteach.tamu.edu/.

-aTm-

Contact: Chris Jarvis, (979) 845-7246 or cjarvis@science.tamu.edu

Jarvis Chris

  • Dr. Holly Gaede, senior lecturer and undergraduate advisor in the Texas A&M Department of Chemistry, says although she never taught Nolen, she did have the pleasure of hearing him speak to one of her classes as a Teach for America representative. "He was inspiring," she recalls. "I was ready to sign up myself. It's clear he had a passion for teaching, so it doesn't surprise me that he is serving students as well as he is. It's clear that he is changing lives."

  • Nolen says everything about his Kabul classroom is traditional by the most progressive of modern standards, right down to his students' thirst for knowledge.

  • Nolen believes in hands-on student involvement to encourage learning in any environment -- in this case, the great outdoors.

  • Nolen and his wife Kayla, wearing traditional dress.

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