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  • For Hangoma Kokulova, every UCA student is a future contributor to the mountain region. She sees herself as an aspiring change-maker, committed to one day helping solve local issues, like the town’s poor water management.
    AKDN / Christopher Wilton-Steer
Distance education: UCA equips youth to address local and global issues despite COVID-19

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.

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.

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 organised 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 does not 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 is 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 is remaining positive while looking forward to a future where she is back on UCA’s bustling campus.


Before COVID-19: UCA students gather together to receive hands-on instruction in the lab.
AKDN / Christopher Wilton-Steer

“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.

“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.”


After COVID-19: Professor Laldjebaev delivers his online class.
UCA / Saifiddin Safarmamadov

Looking ahead

As Hangoma continues her education at UCA, she is considering the local and global challenges she wants to help tackle. She is 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.”

This story was adapted from a story published on the AKF USA website.