“Ladies and Gentlemen, may we bid you a very warm welcome to the inauguration ceremony of the Aga Khan Academy, Hyderabad.”
As Sadaf Bandeali speaks into the wireless microphone, her voice echoes throughout the large hall. It is the day before the actual ceremony, and Bandeali, a Grade 12 student at the Academy, is taking turns rehearsing the announcements that will be made before Mawlana Hazar Imam and other dignitaries enter the room.
Bandeali is grateful for the opportunity to take part in the event. She and three others were chosen for this role after several rounds of auditions, in which more than 40 students were judged on clarity, pronunciation and confidence.
Yet she is even more grateful to simply be here, studying at the Aga Khan Academy, Hyderabad. The Academy is one of the few schools in India to combine a rigorous academic programme with a rich array of co-curricular activities, on a state-of-the-art, 100-acre residential campus.
“I like the all-round development that you get here,” says Bandeali. “There is an emphasis on studies and sports, as well as culture and community service.”
Along with her classmates, Bandeali is benefiting from a school that pushes the envelope in every respect. The academic programme is built around the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, which places critical thinking, leadership skills and social responsibility at its core. The curriculum ensures that students' theoretical learning is linked to relevant local and international topics through the Aga Khan Academy's Curricular Strands that address issues of ethics, pluralism, culture, governance and civil society.
For athletics, there are ample sports facilities, including fields, pools and courts, built to international standards. Technology is used throughout the campus to enhance the student experience. For example, the science building features an LED display that conveys a “science message of the day” together with real-time data about the weather, stars and planets above Hyderabad, while budding artists and musicians have no shortage of creative tools: kilns for firing ceramics, a music recording studio and even a 3-D printer.
“A few years back, I was a bit shy and nervous,” admits Imtiyaz Hariyani, another Grade 12 student. “But I have improved in all respects since enrolling in the Hyderabad Academy.” Hariyani now captains the school cricket team, and enjoys bowling and batting on a large cricket pitch located to one side of the stunning campus grounds.
The Aga Khan Academy, Hyderabad does not aspire to excellence in isolation. Rather, it is part of a worldwide network of Aga Khan Academies that work together. They collectively benefit from their affiliation with the Aga Khan Development Network, which is active in sectors ranging from agriculture to health care, education to business, and finance to urban renewal in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
“These far-flung AKDN programmes can be thought of as part of an extended global campus for the Academies,” explained Mawlana Hazar Imam in his address at the inauguration ceremony, which took place on 20 September. “I think for example, of the rich experiences that our students of the Mombasa Academy already have enjoyed through entities such as the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme – learning there to think creatively about complex social and economic challenges, while also being steeped in a powerful ethic of service.”
The network effect of the Academies is already beginning to have an impact, as three of its 18 planned Academies (Mombasa, Hyderabad and Maputo) are operational. The campuses are already piloting international exchanges of students and teachers, and lessons are being shared across different geographic contexts. Staff ensure that each campus adheres to shared values and principles, while at the same time integrating unique influences from the local environment.
“Usually you just build one of something,” says Moyez Alwani, a design project manager with the Aiglemont-based Academies Unit. “As soon as you build two, they start talking to each other in a dynamic and exciting way.”
As each new campus gets off the ground, the Academies team gradually gains new insights into campus design. These include how to build in developing countries where specialised construction equipment can be scarce, how to strike the right balance between local and imported building materials, and even how to get the little things right, Alwani says.
Lessons are also being learnt in other areas. For example, each Academy has a Professional Development Centre (PDC), which trains teachers internally as well as teachers from other state, private and IB schools, enhancing the Academy's impact in the surrounding region. Rupen Chande, Manager of the PDC programme, says it is important that each Academy's teacher training programme should be recognised by government, as is now the case in both Kenya and India. “This can serve as a strong incentive for external teachers, who must use their vacation time to come in and work with us,” says Chande.
Respect for local needs even extends to the food eaten on each campus. Habiba Teja, TKN Volunteer Food Services Consultant for the Academies programme, explains how her experience at the Mombasa Academy influenced her approach in Hyderabad. Students in Mombasa, she found, did not feel satiated after eating Western cuisine, which tends to place a greater emphasis on meat, sauces, dairy, wheat flour and other ingredients, compared with traditional East African cuisine.
“You could serve the students two cheesecakes and they still wouldn't feel full,” she says. So Teja incorporated a range of Swahili dishes into the menu, including ugali, a dish of maize flour cooked with water. She has adopted a similar approach in Hyderabad. Just as in Mombasa, the food is locally sourced and only fruits and vegetables that are in season are used. But in India, special attention is given to local dietary and religious sensitivities, with separate kitchens and utensils being used to prepare vegetarian and non-vegetarian foods.
Yet perhaps the greatest strength of the Academy comes from the diversity of its student body.
“Pluralism is being lived in the residences through strong friendships amongst very diverse students,” noted Salim Bhatia, Director of the Aga Khan Academies, in his remarks at the inauguration ceremony. “Those from Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Gujarat share a room and their lives with others from Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Myanmar, Dubai and the United States.”
“Christians, Hindus and Muslims are close friends,” he continues, “having supported one another from their very first days on campus. Students from well-to-do families are friends with others who receive substantial scholarship support. On any given day, you can hear these students calling home in many languages and dialects.”
This remarkable diversity is achieved in part because all Academy students are chosen based on individual merit. According to Bhatia, family background and socioeconomic status play no role whatsoever in the admissions process, and nearly half of students receive some amount of financial aid.
When completed in the coming years, the entire network of Aga Khan Academies will span 14 countries. Mawlana Hazar Imam noted that “our students will have the opportunity to speak and learn in Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Dari, Kyrgyz, Bengali, Swahili, Russian, French, English and Portuguese.”
The embrace of pluralism at the institutional level is mirrored by appreciation of it amongst the student body in Hyderabad, where students have a respect for difference and have adopted a commitment to improving the world around them. As they look to the future and fine-tune their academic and career goals, they are informed and inspired by the Academies' ethos.
“This is one of the reasons why I would like to have a career in psychology and social work,” says Farida Virani, a Grade 12 student, who enjoys playing football and basketball. “It truly fascinates me how people are different.”