As Hangoma went about her sophomore year at the University of Central Asia’s (UCA) campus in Khorog, Tajikistan, life changed quickly.

Like many universities around the world, the University of Central Asia was forced to end the semester early and send students home when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.

Hangoma, student at UCA

“Once the pandemic hit, no one went outside.”

Hangoma, University of Central Asia student

Fortunately, the campus did not have any COVID-19 cases, and instructors had taught most of their planned curriculum for the spring semester. As the summer went on, students, staff, and faculty members began to prepare for a new challenge — distance education.

A unique university

UCA was created to equip students to undertake the challenges of today and tomorrow. The university was founded in 2000 with a unique focus on the social and economic development of the Central Asia region and its mountain societies.

Created through a partnership between the Aga Khan Development Network and the Governments of Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Kazakhstan, the university offers a globally recognized standard of higher education in the region. UCA opened its first undergraduate campus in Naryn, Kyrgyz Republic, in 2016. The following year, the university opened a second undergraduate campus nestled in the Pamir mountains in Khorog, Tajikistan.

UCA is dedicated to investing in the next generation of Central Asian leaders, and cultivating a spirit of community service and engagement in the surrounding mountain communities. For Hangoma, an education at UCA has helped her see herself as a changemaker.

Learning to create change

Hangoma grew up in Khorog, and has witnessed the vulnerabilities in the region, such as poverty, isolation, and the effects of climate change. She hopes to help solve these local issues, with a particular focus on environmental challenges.

“If there’s not flooding, there’s an earthquake. If there’s not an earthquake, there’s a mudslide. If not that, then there’s something else,” Hangoma said. “I know the Aga Khan Development Network is working on it, and I want to be part of that.”

“Hangoma is very passionate about bringing positive change to her hometown – Khorog,” said Dr. Murodbek Laldjebaev, Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at UCA.

Dr. Laldjebaev organized a student project to understand waste management on UCA’s campus, and Hangoma volunteered to lead the most difficult part — creating an inventory of waste generated by the campus canteen. Hangoma and her classmates’ work helped inform a report that Dr. Laldjebaev submitted to UCA’s campus management team, which started a conversation about waste management on campus.

“This is just one example of how dedicated Hangoma is about making a positive change,” Dr. Laldjebaev shared. “She boldly takes on difficult tasks that speak volumes about her care, courage, and perseverance.”

A new challenge

Now a junior, Hangoma is adjusting to learning remotely. She misses living on campus with her friends and easily connecting with instructors in person. As an Earth and Environmental Sciences major, remote learning doesn’t allow for the lab and field work that Hangoma enjoys.

However, she sees how remote learning is helping her grow to be more responsible and flexible. It’s also honing her ability to better manage her classes with responsibilities at home, which include cooking and washing dishes for her family of four. She’s remaining positive while looking forward to a future where she’s back on UCA’s bustling campus.

“Online classes have one advantage,” she shares. “When you miss information, you can record the lecture and then watch later.”

Dr. Mohssen Moazzen, the chair of the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department at UCA, understands why Hangoma misses the interactive component of her studies. UCA’s campus in Khorog allows him to teach students about geomaterials and mountain range formation amidst the fascinating geological setting of the Pamir Mountains.

This semester, Dr. Moazzen and his colleagues are incorporating virtual field trips and laboratories in the Earth and Environmental Sciences department. Although these virtual activities are not the same as in-person labs and field work, they are still helping students understand the practical side of environmental studies.

Across UCA, faculty and staff are working to make distance education engaging and accommodating. The university is providing students with laptops and 30GB of Internet access each month.

Still, some students struggle with low Internet bandwidth and balancing classwork with their increased responsibilities at home. To help them continue to learn, professors are finding creative ways to teach. For example, Dr. Laldjebaev is supporting group work by joining calls with multiple devices — his phone, tablet, and computer — so that he can answer each student group’s questions.

Before COVID-19: UCA students gather together to receive hands-on instruction in the lab.

After COVID-19: Professor Laldjebaev delivers his online class.

“Instructors are enriching their knowledge of remote teaching,” says UCA’s Associate Dean and Professor of Mathematics Kholiknazar Kuchakshoev. During the summer, faculty members participated in trainings to learn how to use platforms like Microsoft Teams and Moodle to teach classes.

Dr. Kuchakshoev is also part of an online group where faculty members share their remote teaching experiences with each other to improve instruction across the campus. Although he looks forward to meeting with students in person again, he also sees a new opportunity, mentioning, “I hope we will develop blended teaching at UCA.”

Looking ahead

As Hangoma continues her education at UCA, she’s considering the local and global challenges she wants to help tackle. She’s interested in protecting endangered species and improving the quality of life for people living in remote areas, including better environmental governance and rural development.

“We have to find a better way for addressing the issues because we are all part of one system,” she states. “We cannot function independently, and we all have to think about the future generation.”

After graduating from UCA, Hangoma would like to pursue a Master’s degree. Although the pandemic unexpectedly changed Hangoma’s education, she is still passionate about learning and using her education to make a difference.

“My studies have changed me,” Hangoma says. “I chase new things every time I read.”

Read more about how AKF and the Aga Khan Development Network is working with schools, educators, and families to keep students learning during COVID-19.