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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 / Saifiddin Safarmamadov
Hangoma Kokulova: UCA freshman social entrepreneur in the making

Home away from home

Hangoma grew up in Khorog, a tiny mountain town in eastern Tajikistan. In 2017, UCA opened its second campus there, welcoming its first cohort of students. Like its sister campus in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, UCA’s Khorog Campus features state-of-the-art classrooms, dormitory residences, and athletic facilities – all set against the backdrop of the majestic Pamir mountains. As part of the Aga Khan Development Network, the university is unique in its focus on development of the region’s populations, starting with investment in the next generation of Central Asian leaders.

Back before her tiny mountain town could claim a world-class university, Hangoma was an English major at the Aga Khan Lycée in Khorog. There, she worked hard to master her English language skills with the same determination that helped her secure a spot in UCA’s incoming freshman class.

Hangoma earned her place at UCA through a competitive, merit-based admissions process. At UCA, students from mountain communities receive high-quality education valued at US$ 28,000, yet the average student pays less than US$ 1,500. ​To promote access, the university provides financial aid to every student, and not a single qualified student is denied admission for economic reasons.

Not only does UCA offer substantial financial support, it also matches students with internships each year – an opportunity that Hangoma doesn’t think she would find elsewhere. During her prep year at UCA, she interned with the Aga Khan Foundation regional office in Khorog – a hub for Afghan-Tajik cross-border development activities – focusing on economic inclusion. There, she had an opportunity to visit Afghanistan with her supervisor, where she discovered that the beliefs she held about her country’s neighbour were incorrect. “We are the same people. It was really exciting for me to discover.”

She notes this moment as one where she saw a world outside of her own community – a viewpoint that would continue to expand with her university education and her exposure to new cultures. “To know each culture is so important. In the future, I would like to visit Pakistan and other Central Asian countries to broaden my view and experience. I know some aspects of these cultures from my peers. I think this is really important for my future – to understand how people from other nations feel and think.”

UCA is preparing this young girl to do just that, while also enabling her and her peers to preserve their own rich cultural heritage as assets for the future.

Aspiring to make change

In many ways, Hangoma is not unlike an average college freshman. She has a youthful idealism, and is full of excitement about the future and the learning opportunities that await her. She talks excitedly about social life on UCA’s campus – chess and debate clubs, health and science fairs, “diversity dinners,” and even Halloween parties.

Yet in spite of her idealism, Hangoma is not blindsided by the fact that extreme poverty and isolation in the region make university attendance unattainable for many people her age. What might be more accessible to those in urban centres is harder to acquire for people in these hard-to-reach areas. Further exacerbating the region’s vulnerability are the impacts of climate change here – a challenge that UCA hopes its bright and entrepreneurial young minds will help tackle.

For Hangoma, 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, including the town’s poor water management.

“We do have water supply in Khorog,” she says, “but people don’t have access to it or understand how to manage the water to ensure that every citizen has it… I am studying Earth Environmental Sciences, with a minor in Economics, and with this background, in the future I want to do water and waste management in my community. For this reason, during my internship with the Aga Khan Foundation, I chose to work with the Economic Inclusion department to see and learn how to manage and create equal opportunity for all members of society. The experience gave me a more clear view of my future job or role in my community.”

Hangoma mentions other social problems, like increased pollution levels and the burning of plastic, as ones that she hopes to help fix.  These environmental problems are close to home for her, as she has witnessed the toll that climate change has taken on her community in the form of natural disasters:

“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,” she says. “I know the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat is working on it, and I want to be part of that.”

A new chapter

As part of its mission, UCA seeks to contribute leadership, ideas, and innovations to the communities of the region through education and research programmes that produce skilled and creative graduates.  Though it is only just beginning, Hangoma’s story is an uplifting example of the power of education to inspire and prepare young people to effect positive change.

And she’s not alone. As Brahim Fezzani, Associate Professor of Economics at UCA, notes:

“UCA’s students are exceptional learners. They are full of questions, very good questions. And when you’re teaching them, you see the wheels turning. They used to memorise things. Now they realize that’s not going to help that much. They are thinking for themselves now. They are learning how to fly on their own.”

For young women and men like Hangoma, who aspire to add value to their communities, UCA is providing them a means to develop their abilities to problem seek, problem solve and innovate for a better future.

This article was adapted and updated from a publication that first appeared on the AKF USA website.