Thousands of kilometres from Khorog, on the other side of the vast Indian Ocean, is the Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa. Eight Tajik students were recently given the opportunity to attend the residential school, and are are now benefiting from a multicultural student body, experienced educators and state-of-the-art facilities.

Wearing their new school uniforms, the Tajik students pose for a group shot at the Aga Khan Academy campus in Mombasa. Photo: Courtesy of the Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa Wearing their new school uniforms, the Tajik students pose for a group shot at the Aga Khan Academy campus in Mombasa. Courtesy of the Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa

When Muslima Niyozmamadova grows up, the sixth-grader says she wants to be “a good teacher in the University of Central Asia,” referring to the world's first internationally chartered university, founded jointly by Mawlana Hazar Imam and the governments of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan in 2000. But in order to reach her ambitious goal, Niyozmamadova is getting help from another of Hazar Imam's education projects.

Thousands of kilometres away, on the other side of the vast Indian Ocean, is the Aga Khan Academy, an International Baccalaureate school in the coastal city of Mombasa. Now in its eighth year of operation, the residential school recently received Niyozmamadova and several other Tajik students, who will continue to attend the Academy until they progress to university. The students benefit from a multicultural student body, experienced educators and state-of-the-art facilities.

“It is helping us move closer to our goals,” explains Niyozmamadova, who worried at first about “mosquitoes and ants” in this hot and humid part of East Africa. She now thinks “everything is perfect” – though she says she would have packed a far smaller winter wardrobe if she had to do the move all over again

According to Craig Bradley, a senior manager with the Academies Unit, this international exchange could be the start of a much larger initiative. Offering high-quality educational opportunities and accommodation to the brightest students will allow them to bring new experiences, knowledge and leadership skills back to their home communities. Indeed, when the entire network of 18 Aga Khan Academies – spanning Africa and the Middle East to South and Central Asia – is eventually completed, it's not hard to imagine their student bodies enjoying unrivalled study-abroad opportunities at sister schools.

Although the Academy in Mombasa has been open for several years, dormitory construction is only now being completed. With “excess built capacity coming online,” as Bradley puts it, his team started looking across the portfolio of Aga Khan schools for pilot programme candidates. Last year, the team settled on the Aga Khan Lycée in Khorog, Tajikistan, which has had a long waiting list since first opening in 1998.

“It was partly about freeing some space in the Lycée for additional students while providing an excellent opportunity to several highly deserving students from Khorog,” explains Bradley. The Lycée has Russian, English and Tajik-language streams, and while the team opened last year's application process to every rising sixth grader, English is the primary language of instruction at the Mombasa Academy. Good English skills would therefore be critical for achieving success there.

Muslima gets help with a story she is working on for the newspaper club from club supervisor Anjia, a Diploma Programme student. Courtesy of the Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa

The selection team was lead by Paul Davis, the Academy's Dean of Admissions, Esther Nondi, Middle Years Programme Coordinator, and Kipkemoi Serem, Dorm Master in the Residences. The team travelled to Khorog to meet with the Lycée's parents and students.

There was tremendous interest, and Davis eventually received 62 applications, with “almost 100 per cent” of eligible students applying. From there, the applicants went through an elaborate pre-screening process, and the strongest 20 were ultimately identified based on five main assessments: an open-ended problem solving exercise, “Raven's Progressive Matrices” – a nonverbal test of logic and reasoning, a creative writing exercise, a math test, and a “leader-less” problem solving exercise.

“We've seen a high correlation between the marks on the Raven's Matrices and open-ended problem-solving exercise and some of the more involved problem-solving tasks we ask them to do” at the Academy, says Davis.

The 20 finalists then got to do something that isn't usually considered a normal part of school applications: they went camping. The group of 13 girls and seven boys spent a weekend at a residential campsite about 35 kilometres outside of Khorog, where they completed a number of problem-solving exercises in a setting where supervisors could observe how well they worked and communicated with each other. Activities included playing volleyball and football, designing team skits, solving mazes, and delivering group presentations. Often, the exercises related in one way or another to their mountainous home country; at one point, the students were asked to choose 10 things they would keep if stranded on a mountaintop, and had to defend their priorities to everyone else.

“We were looking at how they worked together, who would let others speak and who wouldn't speak at all,” says Aziz Batada, former head of the Academy's Science Department, who managed the pilot project from Khorog and developed the orientation programme. After the final decisions were made, the selection team and members of the Academy's faculty returned to Khorog, meeting the chosen students and their families before extending formal offers. Eight students were eventually handpicked for the programme. Besides Niyozmamadova, there were two males and five females. Although the students' families contribute what they are able to towards their child's education – at minimum the equivalent of their Lycée tuition fees to the Academy (about USD $350 for the year) – most of the remaining expenses, such as flights and housing, were met by the Academy.

“We tried to get a sense of the resilience of the children and of the families themselves,” says Davis. For example, they discussed the issue of homesickness and talked about ways to prepare for such a life-changing experience. It was an exciting moment for the successful applicants, though the reality of moving to Mombasa sank in quickly. One member of the final group, Zuhali Suhrob, says that when she applied, her “parents were anxious” but nonetheless supported her because “it is one of the best academies of the world and they wanted that I get more knowledge.”

Tajik student Ganjina enjoys a family dinner with her dorm parent and roommates at the Aga Khan Academy in Mombasa. Courtesy of the Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa

Suhrob was excited to see Kenya, and in the months leading up to the transition, she enjoyed communicating with her future teachers and classmates. This pen-pal correspondence actually took place over video – Batada helped the Tajik students record 30-second greetings, saved them on a DVD and mailed it to the Academy. It was part of a larger orientation programme they were required to participate in, ensuring they would hit the ground running in Mombasa.Orientation activities also included setting up email accounts – they quickly started emailing their future classmates and learning about Internet safety.

“From the time they were selected until they went to Mombasa, Academy staff were in contact with them six days a week and preparing them for the move,” says Bradley.

Academically, Batada – with the support of Lycée staff and the Aga Khan Education Service in Tajikistan – helped the students complete a number of learning exercises after normal school hours throughout the months-long orientation. In addition to working on English and math, they read a social justice-themed novel about child labour and completed a research project, Building My Tajikistan, which allowed the students to suggest novel ideas for improving their home country. In the process, they learned how to use citations, create bibliographies and other important academic skills.

They also studied Kenyan history, learning about the country's flag, national anthem and diverse cultures. Every Saturday in Khorog, Batada organised a fun activity, such as a nature hike, chess game, art project or movie discussion. “I was trying to mimic the experience of what a weekend at a residential academy would be like,” says Batada.

In February 2011, it was finally time for the group to travel to Mombasa, where they were scheduled to complete the second half of their sixth-grade year (they will start seventh grade in autumn). The transition was both challenging and exciting. The students were arriving in Kenya at the hottest time of year, and none of them had ever seen the ocean before. Getting used to the presence of mosquitoes took time, as did learning how to live and sleep alone in a private space, since Tajik homes are more communal in structure.

Time management skills were also necessary, now that the students would have 24-hour Internet access and a busy schedule of classes and homework. Zuhali Suhrob says she missed Tajikistan's winter and snow at first: “I didn't like the climate when I came,” she says.

Yet despite all this, the Tajik students have fit in very well and are thrilled with their new environment. “They can't believe that bananas are so cheap, and they love swimming,” says Batada. This past semester functioned as an introduction to life at the Academy, and the students seem ready to return in autumn for their first full year of studies.

Three of the students celebrate their birthdays with fellow Aga Khan Academy residents. Courtesy of the Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa

A few months ago, members of the group designed costumes and performed a Tajik dance at lunchtime for their classmates, and also gave a cultural presentation during an all-school assembly. They have also relied on each other for emotional support, in addition to the dorm parents and student captains present in each residence building.

Meanwhile, the Tajik students have been spending extra time working with specially assigned teaching fellow Zarniso Mamadsaidova, in order to maintain and build on their native language skills. “We want to be sure they continue to develop their Tajik and Russian reading and speaking skills,” says Craig Bradley. Indeed, the Tajik students are returning home to their families over the summer, and the expectation is that they'll eventually return home for good.

Bradley hopes they will seek careers in Tajikistan, bringing back new leadership skills and a broader awareness of the world to the struggling Central Asian country. “This is where the ties to home, including continued learning in the languages they will need in their future lives in Tajikistan, are quite critical,” he says.

Muslima Niyozmamadova, who dreams of becoming a University of Central Asia professor, says she's inspired by an even larger goal: “This Academy is preparing future leaders,” she says, “and I wanted to be one of them to help my country and the whole world.”

The Tajik students together with Les Wilkins, the Head of the Junior School, dressed in traditional Pamiri outfits for the Junior School Assembly celebrating Navroz. Photo: Courtesy of the Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa The Tajik students together with Les Wilkins, the Head of the Junior School, dressed in traditional Pamiri outfits for the Junior School Assembly celebrating Navroz. Courtesy of the Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa