Photo: Nisar Keshvani (third from left) at the UCA campus in Naryn during its launch.
This article was written by IPRS Accredited Member, Mr Nisar Keshvani. It was originally hosted at In-Depth News on 20 June 2021.
SINGAPORE — Imagine. The most remote of mountains. Two thousand metres above sea level. On the Silk Road, and 240 km away from China. In secondary cities with populations going up to 150,000. Therein, majestically stands a fully-residential university, delivering a world-class education for the next generation of Central Asian learners—regardless of their financial position.
On June 19, the University of Central Asia (UCA) made history. Its inaugural cohort of 57 students will graduate in Computer Science; Communications and Media; Economics and Earth and Environmental Science.
UCA’s university campuses are in Naryn, Kyrgyz Republic; Khorog, Tajikistan, with a third in development in Tekeli, Kazakhstan.
This institution began as a concept in 1997. After the collapse of the Soviet Union—high quality international standard education was much needed for progress in Central Asia. Sounds like a simple idea, but some would say it has made the impossible, possible.
In 2000, a treaty was signed and ratified in the United Nations between the Aga Khan Development Network and the Governments of Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, and thus the journey began. An unprecedented endeavour with every step taken, no doubt against the grain. Arriving with its challenges, surmounted only by the resilience of its people. In its heart, lies innovation.
Over the past two decades, at least a thousand if not more, have contributed to make this vision a reality. Most significantly, many native citizens learnt, grew and returned home to play an instrumental hand. It began with relocating townsfolk from campus grounds to new homes across the road, refurbishing roads, laying water, electricity and internet lines, unearthing and preserving archaeological finds, climate-sensitive construction plans, completing international standard university living and learning facilities.
How did my path cross such an institution?
A deep unexplained desire to contribute to Central Asia surfaced in my final university year. I first heard of the University when completing an assignment at the Aga Khan Foundation’s European office. A decade later, an opportunity arose to take a teaching sabbatical. I volunteered with the University to support its communications, which led to a full-time assignment founding its communications function over the next eight years. And then continued for another two as a remote volunteer reviewing their media curriculum.
The University facilitated the transformation of its host city with the best early childhood education, modern healthcare facilities, life-long schooling, civic education and park spaces. During this journey, jobs were created, businesses flourished, quality of life improved, and the future became amazingly promising. Research into mountain climates and communities ensued resulting in top-tier publications advancing knowledge in the field.
I was privileged to engage with multi-faceted stakeholders from the potential student, their parent, to university partners, researchers, educators, government, and media from the most advanced countries to the remotest village. Often in Russian, and Central Asian languages, unbeknownst to me.
Ask a communications professional what’s their role—and the response will be multi-coloured—sending and receiving information; crafting messages, changing perceptions, creatively engaging and building audiences. The list goes on ….
But for me, it has always been about building institutions; long-lasting ones just like UCA.
As buildings are constructed, staff were hired, and initiatives delivered. Just as important is communications. Every written word, visual, speech is carefully crafted. Every individual from c-suite to ancillary staff plays an ambassadorial function. Every building signage forms the institution’s identity.
At the back of my mind always, were the profound words of the Chancellor, His Highness the Aga Khan from 1983.
“There are those … who enter the world in such poverty that they are deprived of both the means and the motivation to improve their lot. Unless these unfortunates can be touched with the spark which ignites the spirit of individual enterprise and determination, they will only sink back into renewed apathy, degradation and despair. It is for us, who are more fortunate, to provide that spark.”
And thereafter, at the University’s 2016 inauguration he said, “It is important to know that what we are doing here will be a valuable example of international cooperation for the future not only here in the region, but also for people far beyond the region.”
The University was created to be a catalyst for social and economic development in the region’s mountain societies with its academic curriculum developed in partnership with a number of universities from Canada, UK, Russia, Sweden and Australia.
For me, the proudest moment was when students first arrived to the residential campus. From diverse ethnicities, backgrounds and geographies—some travelled by foot, horse, and bus, over days. But once they entered, they were all united in their educational pursuit. Full of hope, passion and the desire to learn.
I was privileged to get acquainted with each one of them. Bearing witness with full confidence a dream had become reality for each one of them. These youth have now successfully graduated (pandemic notwithstanding) – prepared to bring change for themselves, their families, their countries for the foreseeable future. Just as their dreams were coming true, so had mine.
A friend once asked me what is privilege?
Inherited financial security for some, an Ivy League education for others, or being blessed with supportive family and friends. For me it is a tad more than that – it is the opportunity to have played a minute role in the birthing of a legacy institution. Knowing deep down and having the faith that not one but many lives for the generations to come will and continue to change, forever.
* Nisar Keshvani is a global citizen who has lived and worked across five continents before returning home to Singapore. He spent eight years in Central Asia and currently he leads communications for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore. The reflections expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the organisations he works for. Connect with him on LinkedIn