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Cokato High School graduate considers work at Afghan university the ‘capstone of his career’
April 4, 2011

By Jennifer Kotila
Staff Writer

COKATO, MN; KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – It is evident when looking over Dr. Dale Larson’s life and career, that his work ethic, and apparent love of continued learning and knowledge, have created opportunities many would never even dream of.

Larson, who graduated from Cokato High School in 1965, is working to build and create a first-of-its kind university in Afghanistan, and is the chair of the business and economics department at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) [click on link to visit AUAF website] in Kabul.

He has been at the University since August 2010, and is creating the curriculum to establish the first master of business administration program in Afghanistan, which will be added next fall.

Throughout his career, Larson has worked for international organizations that have taken him all over the world.

“My most rewarding work is what I am doing right now, because most of the students are so grateful, and Afghanistan is so desperately poor,” Larson said. “I consider this job the capstone of my career.”

The plan is to stay at the university for seven years, leaving behind an institution that will benefit all of central Asia, Larson said.

This is not the first time Larson has helped establish a center for education and business growth inside a military zone.

He helped to establish a business plan in 1996, for the US Army’s Fort Clayton in Panama to be converted into the “City of Knowledge,” a combination academic and business park, before the US turned it over to Panama in 1999.

“It was a case of swords into plowshares,” Larson said.

Larson is the son of the late Elmer and Helen Larson, and grew up on the family’s dairy farm south of Cokato. Larson and his brother, John, who lives in St. Louis Park, still own the family farm.

“Growing up on a dairy farm habituated me to working almost every day of the year,” Larson said, adding, “Cokato High School prepared me well for college.”

Although there were many good teachers at Cokato High School who encouraged Larson, and whom he admired, one of his favorites was Richard Fredeen.

Fredeen taught shop class, and was also Larson’s basketball coach and Sunday school teacher at First Baptist Church.

“He was calm, dignified, and decent,” recalls Larson. “I wanted to be like him, and still do.”

Larson’s education and career

After graduating from CHS, Larson attended the University of Minnesota, and graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1969.

Larson then joined the Marine Corps. “It was while I was stationed with the Marines in Hawaii towards the end of the Vietnam War that I realized there was a whole world out there,” Larson said. “It certainly looked a bit different than Minnesota, especially in January.”

After finishing his time in the Marines, Larson returned to school. He attended the University of Wisconsin - Madison, where he earned a Ph.D. in international economics in 1976.

Following graduation, Larson accepted a post-doctoral fellowship at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, where he conducted research on the pattern of Belgian trade specialization.

Today, Larson has more than 25 years of experience as an economist, focusing on international trade and finance, and comparative economic systems.

He has often worked for the US government. While at the US Treasury, he wrote a quarterly outlook for the G-7 economies (G-7 is a group of representatives from seven industrialized nations with large economies, including the US, Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Canada), analyzed trade and international macroeconomic issues, and wrote briefings for treasury meetings with foreign officials.

During his 1991-92 tenure at the US Treasury, Larson was in several meetings with US Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and visited foreign heads of state and finance ministers.

“At the time, Brady was in poor health,” Larson said, adding, “The most impressive person was then Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt.”

Larson has also worked for the US International Trade Commission and the US State Department’s Foreign Service Institute.

He has taught economics and international trade at a number of universities, including Johns Hopkins University, American University, and Ohio Wesleyan University.

While Larson taught international business and trade at American University, he led a three-week student tour of China.

He worked for the private corporations of the Bank of America and the Mitsubishi Research Institute, as the head economist.

He has traveled all over the world, including Brazil, Singapore, Panama, Japan, Hong Kong, and China.

“I wrote speeches for Bank of America CEO Tom Clausen, who was very gruff and demanding,” Larson said.

Most recently, Larson was the senior trade economist at Izdihar in Baghdad, Iraq. There, he advised the ministry of trade on the likelihood of Iraq being accepted into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and wrote a “lessons learned” study of Kyrgyzstan’s acceptance to the WTO.

Going into Baghdad in 2006 was one of Larson’s scariest experiences throughout his life.

“I was met at the airport by six grimly serious bodyguards, given a helmet and flack jacket, and told what to do if we were attacked,” Larson recalls. “We set off in a convoy of three armored SUVs, and when they loaded their rifles, I began to wonder if coming [to Iraq] was such a good idea.”

In Baghdad, Larson lived in a small compound in the “red zone” outside of the large “green zone.”

“On one of my first days, just after dark and when I was alone in my office, a tremendous barrage of gunfire began and the night sky was filled with tracer bullets,” Larson said.

He thought the green zone was under massive attack. “But it was simply that the Iraqi national soccer team had won a big game,” he said, “and the Iraqis were celebrating in the Arab way, firing their AK-47s in the air.”

Along with all of the work he has done for others, Larson established his own global consulting firm in 2000.

Through his firm, he has advised the Indonesian Finance Ministry on trade policy, identified trade capacity building in Yemen, and researched numerous trade and economic issues for several international clients.

About the university

Opening its doors in 2006 with only 52 students enrolled in its undergraduate and foundation studies programs, AUAF currently has 789 students.

The foundation studies program is to help students master the English language in order to prepare for the undergraduate studies programs, which are only taught in English.

Enrollment at AUAF has increased dramatically recently, according to the March 2011 newsletter, increasing 36 percent since fall 2010.

Nearly everything at AUAF is like an American college, Larson said. Instruction is in English, and the textbooks used are American and British.

One difference he has noticed is the work ethic of the students. “Here, the students are respectful, sincerely appreciative, and incredibly hardworking,” Larson said, noting the difference with American college student stereotypes.

“AUAF students really want to be educated, and for me this means that teaching here is truly gratifying,” he added.

Larson tells the story of one of his students as an example.

“This student’s cousins are in the Taliban, and through marriage he is related to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban. Asked what separates him from his cousins, he told me they are illiterate.

“Since his father received an education, however, he supports his son at AUAF. So what separates this student from his Taliban cousins is simply education. He also added that if his cousins found him studying here, they would kill him.

“Regardless, this student shows up every day to learn, and may open up his own business. It’s amazing.”

Although studying in Kabul can be dangerous, with random attacks occurring periodically throughout the city, there is a security team that protects the campus and housing for international staff, such as Larson.

Movement outside of campus can, at times, be restricted, and has to be cleared with the security office.

None of this seems to bother Larson, though. He is committed to creating a safe educational environment for young adults in Afghanistan who would normally not have the opportunity to become educated.

“We’re creating something that has never been done before in Afghanistan. I’m working at a startup university, hiring professors, designing course curricula, and teaching hard-working and appreciative students. It’s exciting,” he said.

Larson’s wife, Patricia is a biologist at Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, MD.

He has three children from a previous marriage, including a son adopted from Thailand, and two stepchildren.

Three of the children are in college, and two are still in high school.

Although Larson misses his family when he is in Afghanistan, he is really only there eight months of the year. He returns home for a month at Christmas, and three months in the summer.

During fall and spring breaks, Larson and Patricia rendezvous in Europe. They also talk via Skype.

Ed. note: This story has been modified to provide a link to the American University of Afghanistan website.

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