“What this university is all about is not only the power of education, but also the power of international cooperation,” said Mawlana Hazar Imam, who is the Chancellor of the University, in his address. “It is a power that can change peoples’ lives.”
The potential to transform the mountain region of Central Asia and to improve the lives of its peoples was a recurring theme in the remarks of all the speakers at the ceremony. And the beginnings of these positive changes were already evident to the audience gathered at the Naryn campus, including Princess Zahra, Prince Rahim and Prince Aly Muhammad, as well as the Governor of the Naryn Oblast, various government ministers, the university’s faculty, students and staff, and AKDN and Jamati leaders.
“Today in Naryn, surrounded by white snowy mountains, icy mountain peaks, we are celebrating an outstanding moment for us all in Kyrgyzstan,” declared Prime Minister Sooronbay Jeenbekov. “Today, we inaugurate a new international standard university in Central Asia.”
The Prime Minister also read a congratulatory message sent by the President of the Republic, His Excellency Almazbek Atambayev. The President, who is also a Patron of the University, wrote that UCA “is not an ordinary educational establishment, but an academic centre that will prepare the most skilled and innovative professionals for our country’s future development.”
“Thanks to the support of His Highness the Aga Khan,” he continued, “students from remote areas and small cities receive significant financial aid, based on their families’ needs, and no student was disqualified from study due to financial restraints.”
One of those students, Eraj Uzoqov from Tajikistan, spoke on behalf of the university’s inaugural class of 71 undergraduate students. He told that audience that he and his fellow classmates were in awe of the new campus, and had a hard time believing that a university of this calibre could exist so high up in the mountains.
Uzoqov also spoke of how in just the first six weeks, the UCA was already uniting people from the mountain regions of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, and those from farther regions like Afghanistan and Pakistan. They were beginning share in each others’ cultures and to come to know one another.
“As beautiful as the mountains are around us, they have physically divided people in Central Asia for hundreds of years,” said Uzoqov. “However, being at UCA we have realised that education can unite people despite the physical boundaries and altitudes of the mountains.”
The path to these happy encounters began with a historic meeting that took place 16 years ago, in which Mawlana Hazar Imam came together with the presidents of the founding states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to sign an international treaty establishing the University of Central Asia.
“It was an unprecedented event,” said Hazar Imam. “The treaty was then a unique example to the entire world of how these three countries could actually dream together about their common future.” And this kind of cooperation is rooted in the region’s rich heritage, he reminded the audience.
A thousand years ago, Central Asia “was the place that leading thinkers from around the known world would look to for leadership,” said Hazar Imam. “This region is where algebra got its name, where the earth's diameter was precisely calculated, where some of the world’s greatest poetry was penned.”
These achievements were possible because of the “openness” that people had — to one another, to new ideas, to diversity and to change — even as these differences came from other cultures in faraway lands.
And it is this attitude of openness that “can again be the key that unlocks the doors to the future,” said Hazar Imam, “as we take on the great questions of our time and place: How can we best improve our schools, head off climate change, deal with natural disasters, and advance the public’s health?”
These are matters of global and regional importance that the University of Central Asia can help to address, but the university can also make an impact locally — in fact it already has, said Mawlana Hazar Imam. He cited the establishment of a medical and diagnostic centre in Naryn as well as the renovation of Seitaaly Jakypov Park. He also mentioned plans for an early childhood development centre, a residential development and a university inn.
Looking to the future, Mawlana Hazar Imam also announced that the governance of the university will now transition to a Board of Trustees, and named Shamsh Kassim-Lakha as its chairman. The Founding President of the Aga Khan University and a former Minister of Education and of Science and Technology in Pakistan, Dr Kassim-Lakha has served as Executive Chairman of the Board Executive Committee of the University of Central Asia, and is also the Aga Khan Development Network Resident Representative to the Kyrgyz Republic.
Dr Kassim-Lakha delivered the opening remarks at the inauguration ceremony, in which he expressed gratitude to the university’s founders for their guidance and support, as well as to the UCA Board Executive Committee and various teams for their intellectual contributions and hard work, and to the donors for their generosity. He particularly acknowledged “the contribution of over 100 Time and Knowledge volunteers from the Ismaili community globally, who have given selflessly of their time and professional knowledge.”
The physical buildings and grounds testified to the contributions made by all of these constituencies, but it was the vivacious energy of its first class of students that excited the spirit of what the university will make possible.
“We, the inaugural class of 2021, realise that while we enjoy the benefits of this campus, we also carry important responsibilities with us,” said Eraj Uzoqov. “Each of us, each of us, is responsible for taking the knowledge we receive here and applying it to the larger world. We have a responsibility to serve the people who reside not only in our local communities, but also those across the globe.”
“We pledge to follow Your Highness’s vision of what a global citizen should be as we begin this journey of education and discovery.”