Coming to Lehigh in 2017, Kalim Abed faced the opportunity to do something no one had done before. By the time Abed completed his master’s degree in special education in May 2019, the Fulbright scholar became the first person in Afghanistan to receive such a degree in special education from the United States.

Now a candidate for a Ph.D. in special education since August 2019, Abed, 30, hopes to use what he’s learned at Lehigh and apply it back in his home of Kabul, Afghanistan. But his interest in special education spurs from earlier in his life. 

Abed received his bachelor’s degree in special education from Kabul Education University, going on to become an assistant lecturer there. 

His education then took him to the U.S. — he spent three months at Purdue University in Indiana and traveled to various schools around the U.S. to learn about the special education system. The program, called the Afghan Junior Faculty Development Program, was a “short, cultural exchange program,” he said, though he didn’t take the proper courses necessary for his degree until starting his master’s at Lehigh. 

Kalim Abed working with a student
Kalim Abed became the first person in Afghanistan to receive a masters degree in special education.

In June 2017 before he enrolled at Lehigh, Abed participated in the StepUp Intensive English program, run by the International Center for Academic and Professional English, where he spent the summer learning English. 

He said he found StepUp useful because the program focused on important areas of writing, critical because he is a lecturer back home in Afghanistan.

“I knew formats and how to write, but I did not have updated information,” he said. “That's why the reading was extremely important — how to follow APA standards based on university format.”

Abed said another important aspect of the StepUp program was the focus on speaking, practicing the pronunciations of different dialects and how they sound.  

“We had an American pragmatics in terms of knowing the culture here and how things work,” he said.

Abed said one of the most important things he learned through the StepUp program was how to navigate the online coursework system many Lehigh students are familiar with. 

Back home, he said, everything is on paper and there is no tool like Course Site, no software to check plagiarism. 

“The whole online thing can be a really difficult thing to navigate if you are not already aware of it,” he said. “Imagine if I just started my program in special education, but I don't know how to write a paper in APA style. It’s extremely important for students when they come to have more information.” 

Abed found the whole online navigation system worked well for him, especially when interacting with his rigorous workload. 

He also found the social aspect of StepUp helped to integrate him better with the community, meeting classmates who were also international students. He said after becoming friends with the people in his class, they stayed friends until they graduated from the StepUp program. 

“It's different to be in a country where they are not speaking your own language and you have to write and read everything academically — different than talking with locals,” Abed said. 

Though Abed is unsure when he’ll complete his Ph.D. — he guesses 2025 — he eventually wants to work in special education in Afghanistan and around the world.  

He just started a small project in a region of Afghanistan where he surveys students with special needs, which will lead to the beginning of working with the students over Facebook Messenger. The project is very small, he said, and completely volunteer-based — there is no pay involved.