University of Central Asia invests in young professionals as future leaders in development

Date: 14 March 2013
Other languages: Русский язык |

At 29, the last thing Khalid Kurji anticipated was moving to the Kyrgyz Republic. He was at a cross-road, re-evaluating his decision to pursue a PhD at John Hopkins University, and embracing a new and interesting challenge. He took the road less travelled, and now finds himself at the University of Central Asia (UCA) in Bishkek. Khalid is one of 20 young Canadian professionals selected for the competitive International Fellowship Programme of the Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC). Canadians are selected from diverse academic backgrounds and matched with development organisations around the world to expose them to the field and contribute to the mission of the host organization. 

The programme’s success relies on the fusing of objectives: Fellows build their professional skill set and international experience; the host organization increases capacity, capitalizing on the education, enthusiasm and fresh perspectives the AKFC Fellows bring. Cross-cultural learning and expertise exchange are inherent to the placement. Two AKFC Fellows are currently hosted at UCA and another at the Aga Khan Foundation, Kyrgyz Republic.

“These extraordinary young Canadians bring skills, dedication and enthusiasm to their host organizations,” says Khalil Z. Shariff, the CEO of AKFC. “But they receive as much as they give. The experience they gain during the programme is an important stepping stone in fostering global citizenship in their personal and professional lives.” 
Drawing on his experience as a student and instructor in diverse academic settings, Khalid contributed his ideas and learnt new skills as he participated in various aspects of UCA’s planning and development. In Academic Planning, he helped design components of a comprehensive humanities undergraduate curriculum, incorporating core principles of higher education, such as critical thinking skills, interdisciplinary study and rigorous research.

In consultation with a team of international experts, Khalid researched and conducted baseline educational assessments with over 100 graduating high school students in Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic and Kazakhstan. Involved in strategic planning, Khalid expanded his knowledge in market feasibility studies, logistics planning, business operations and even construction. When reflecting on his UCA experience, Khalid said:
“One of the greatest challenges is trying to visualise the University’s development, as there are many unforeseen aspects to consider. However, as you progress and see developments fall into place, you know the work you are doing now will influence the student experience for generations to come. It is this knowledge, that is quite inspiring.” 
AKFC Fellow Khalid Khurji discussing baseline educational 
assessment with UCA colleagues
This inspiration is shared by UCA colleague and AKFC Fellow Emily Harrison. Emily brought a background in development and Canadian refugee policy from Tanzania to the UCA Communications Department, where she worked as an analyst. Emily was in a unique position, liaising with all units across the university to address their communication needs and bringing their work to the forefront; “Being able to work with all University programmes has given me a better understanding of UCA’s scope. I am thrilled to be able to contribute to building communications capacity within UCA, and also highlight the considerable accomplishments of staff and researchers across the three countries.”
Emily Harrison with the Naryn Mayor’s Office football team, during
the inauguration of UCA’s Naryn Sports Facilities in August 2012
Tamana Zamir, applied for the fellowship after completing her International Development studies at the University of Toronto. Hosted by UCA’s sister agency, the Aga Khan Foundation, Kyrgyz Republic in Bishkek, she supported grassroots community initiatives, ranging from greenhouse establishment to ‘travelling Jailoo kindergartens’ for Kyrgyz herder families. “I was made to feel part of the team from day one. I have had the opportunity to work directly with communities; engage in and help lead trainings; and carry out data collection and assessments. The skills and knowledge I have gained in monitoring and evaluation is significant,” she said.
Immersing oneself in a foreign country with a new organization in a culture with distinctive customs and a language different from your own comes with its challenges. The Fellows quickly encountered the complexities of development work in the region, including balancing the interests of a range of stakeholders, such as government agencies, donors, partner organisations and communities. They also felt the vast distances from the familiarity of home, and the challenges of forging new relationships in Kyrgyzstan, aware that their time on the ground is most likely limited.
Tamana Zamir, Research, Evaluation and Learning Fellow with kindergarten teachers
and colleagues inside a Dolon jailoo kindergarten yurt, in Naryn, Kyrgyz Republic
Despite these challenges, all three Fellows recommend the programme. “It is a fantastic opportunity for young professionals looking for a career change or jump” said Khalid. Alumni of the Fellowship programme have successfully engaged in international development in a variety of ways, including securing positions with government and international organisations, founding companies based on development principles and working as freelance reporters covering development stories.
Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC) is a non-profit international development agency, working in Asia and Africa to find sustainable solutions to the complex problems causing global poverty.  Established in 1980, AKFC is a registered Canadian charity and an agency of the worldwide Aga Khan Development Network.

AKFC’s International Fellowship program  provides outstanding young Canadians with an opportunity to gain professional skills and first-hand knowledge of international development through comprehensive training and an eight-month placement in Africa or Asia with agencies and affiliates of the Aga Khan Development Network. Since 1989, more than 350 Canadians have participated, with many alumni going on to diverse careers in government, non-profit, media and finance sectors. For more information, visit  
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