Story Highlights• Students remain unfazed at Baghdad University despite nearby explosions
• The young Iraqis say no amount of terrorism will keep them from dreaming big
• The class had intended to examine comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam
• Lesson soon became surviving in the present
By Kyra Phillips
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents and anchors share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. Here, CNN's Kyra Phillips describes a recent visit to Baghdad University.
BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Political science students at Baghdad University had barely begun a discussion of comparisons between the Iraq and Vietnam wars when suddenly nearby explosions shook the classroom.
The talk instantly shifted from a past conflict to the here and now -- and what it's like to live in a war zone when it's unknown if a trip to school will be your last.
Yasser Thar, a junior, said such bombings fill him with fear and anxiety.
"I wonder if my family is OK because we have no idea where those bombs are landing," he said.
More bombs went off. The students didn't even flinch. (Watch bombs shake class, make students more determined under fire )
"These explosions have united us as the sectarian violence divides us. Whether we are Sunni, Shia or Kurd, we are all targets and that has brought us closer," said Muhklas Ali, also a junior.
Such is the way of life for students at Baghdad University, where they could be killed at any time simply for trying to get a diploma. Extremists have terrorized this campus over the last four years.
Just this week, a car bomb exploded at the university's entrance, killing five students and wounding 18 others. Since the war in Iraq began in March 2003, at least 70 security guards and employees have been killed and 100 professors have been assassinated, officials said. The death toll from car bombs on campus isn't even known because there have been so many.
The students who remain are courageous, focused on getting an education. They said they feel that if they want a future, they must continue to brave the terrorism that keeps their campus under seige.
Every day, they get up in the morning, most of them with no jobs and no money for a taxi, risking their lives just trying to get to class.
Nadia Rasheed, a junior, smiled as she spoke up. "As a woman, we suffer coming to college, going to home, studying to bombs."
I asked her, "So why do you do it? Even with bombs?"
"This is a big challenge for us. We are courageous people. We are brave," she responded.
Professor Abdul Jabber Ahmed added, "Maybe the situation in Iraq is not a good situation, but the challenge of the human is how to create the best situation for the future."
Classroom debate interrupted
I had met with the professor before the session and was inspired by his passion. Sitting in a humble office full of books, he insisted I sit down, have a piece of candy and talk to him while his students gathered for class.
I told him one of the debates going on in the United States was whether Iraq was turning into another Vietnam. He felt there were similarities with regard to the chaos and loss of life, but that the Iraq war was much more complex due to the economic, religious and extremist issues underlying it.
I was eager to see what the students had to say. When we got to the classroom, the students were initially shy but curious. The professor and I sat in the front of the class.
His introduction surprised me: "This is Kyra Phillips with CNN and this is her crew. They do not work for the government, they are independent journalists. Please speak openly and honestly and don't be afraid to share your opinion. "
All I could think about was how sad it is that these Iraqis still don't know who they can trust. Here I was, seeking to hear their voices, seeking truth and debate. I never would have thought they might question our CNN credentials.
The debate then began: Vietnam versus Iraq, and can you even compare the two wars? Immediately students started raising their hands. Moments later the nearby bombs started going off.
I soon realized that comparing Iraq to Vietnam was not today's lesson; today's lecture was living this war in this moment.
All the students told me they are trying to believe in a better future. They have thought about what they want to do. Every student grabbed the microphone and with tremendous pride shouted out their dream job -- becoming a professor, Iraqi intelligence officer, a diplomat.
No amount of terror has kept them from dreaming big. In all, 12 explosions shook the classroom. Many of the students still managed to smile as they voiced their aspirations for themselves and their country.
For the professor, that is also a part of his lesson: hope.
"For me the best thing is how to keep unity in this classroom," he said. "So when they leave this classroom, they'll keep unity in their home and on the streets."
I asked the students -- Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds alike -- did they all feel as one in this classroom? One Iraq?
"Yes," they said in harmony and without hesitation.
It was perhaps the first time I have seen true unity in Iraq.
Students in a political science class at Baghdad University say terrorism has not kept them from planning for a better future.