The University of Central Asia (UCA) is an internationally chartered, secular, private, not-for-profit university with a mission to improve the quality of life of mountain societies. It was founded in 2000 through an International Treaty signed by the Ismaili Imamat together with the Governments of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, ratified by their respective parliaments and registered with the United Nations. UCA’s three campuses, nestled in rural mountainous towns along the historic Silk Road, are at the heart of the economic, social, and intellectual transformation taking place in the region.

UCA's first campus was established in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan against the backdrop of the majestic Tien Shan Mountains. The historic campus inauguration in October 2016 was graced by Mawlana Hazar Imam, Prince Rahim, Princess Zahra, Prince Aly Mohammed as well as several dignitaries including the Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan, Jamati leadership, diplomats, and academic partner universities.

To help with the planning for this historic occasion, UCA sought the expertise of a seasoned TKN volunteer who could comprehend the region's complex dynamics, build local capacity, and collaborate closely with a range of stakeholders. With the support of the TKN Office, Shajahan Merchant, founder and CEO of a digital transformation and AI company in New York, was selected for this assignment. Shajahan was also the then President of the Ismaili Council for Northeastern USA, in which role he served for 7 years. The brief from Dr. Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, Chairman, UCA Board of Trustees, was to execute a high-quality event and ensure that, as much as possible, local vendors and the local economy benefit from the event.

Considering the scale and complexity involved in implementing such a high-quality event, Shajahan was engaged remotely in the preparations for the event six months ahead of the inauguration. Three months prior to the inauguration, he relocated to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital. Among the challenges were the complex supply chain as Naryn is a remote, mountainous town. Additionally, most of the population, including vendors, spoke only Kyrgyz or Russian.

To ensure smooth coordination across all functions, UCA established an Inauguration Oversight Committee, comprising UCA's senior leadership and Shajahan Merchant. Collaborative mentoring was provided to campus staff and local vendors that included audio engineers and video engineers. This helped foster an integrated approach. For example, audio engineers had limited understanding of the complicated acoustics, so a volunteer was engaged to coach them remotely. Similarly, expert staff and volunteers from the global AKDN communications team guided local video engineers. A local design and construction vendor commissioned for stage furniture also provided inputs throughout the process. The Serena Hotel Chef coached the campus kitchen staff. This exemplified an exceptional display of collective dedication from staff, management and volunteers, resulting in an inauguration event of exceptional quality.

Shajahan Merchant says, "In a town where we could not procure a simple white tablecloth, there is an AKDN institution that offers high quality education on a secular and needs-blind basis that is equivalent to a good Western university. This is what “impossible made possible” looks like."

After the successful Naryn campus inauguration, UCA again requested Shajahan Merchant’s support on a similar TKN assignment for the inauguration of the UCA campus in Khorog, Tajikistan in September 2018. One logistical challenge was the shortage of rooms to accommodate guests. This was innovatively addressed through an Airbnb-style solution by approaching neighboring villagers to offer their spare rooms to accommodate guests unable to find lodging on campus or at local hotels. The community graciously cooperated. Remarkably, this initiative catalyzed the creation and expansion of bed and breakfast businesses among local villagers, fostering a positive impact on the local economy. “Creative problem-solving and everyone’s desire to give their very best was deeply inspiring for me,” says Shajahan.

Shajahan Merchant has continued to support UCA. He remotely assisted the coordination of UCA’s inaugural Convocation in 2021. For the June 2023 UCA Convocation, Shajahan once again embraced an on-site TKN role as an Event Planner. His focus centered on curating an unforgettable experience for UCA’s invited donors and TKN volunteers, several of whom were visiting UCA for the first time. He meticulously coordinated every element of their visit to Kyrgyzstan, ensuring a cherished experience for the guests that included showcasing the region’s rich culture and traditions as well as the picturesque UCA campus in Naryn. Donors and TKN volunteers also had the opportunity to attend a special recognition event with the UCA trustees, including Princess Zahra.

Commenting on Shajahan’s remarkable record of voluntary service, Dr Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, says, “He is one of the most talented and dedicated leaders with an inspiring commitment to voluntary service. In many decades of working with volunteers, I have seldom come across such a hardworking and self-effacing leader who is simply focused on attaining the objective, no matter the odds”.

Shajahan's unwavering dedication as a TKN volunteer resulted in him also being recruited by the Department of Jamati Institutions (DJI) in June 2022, in the role of Climate Change Facilitator to help coordinate the work of climate initiatives across the 22 National Council jurisdictions.

In response to addressing Climate Change issues, Jamati institutions worldwide have developed several strategies including reducing greenhouse gases in operations, adapting to climate risk, identifying climate related economic opportunities, highlighting green career opportunities, and raising awareness to lead a low carbon lifestyle.

The Councils are in the process of implementing initiatives such as energy audits of Jamatkhanas, speaker series on climate careers, solar installations, climate hackathon, park cleanup and tree planting, awareness campaigns, risk assessment and adaptation exercises. “If you are a climate professional, please come forward and offer your knowledge, your assistance to the institutions wherever you live. We have been blessed by Allah with the beautiful gift of the environment; it is our moral obligation to care, to nurture, and to leave this physical world more sustainable than what we have inherited”, says Shajahan.

In 2017, Shajahan also served with AKHS as the TKN Event Planner for the Bamyan Provincial Hospital inauguration in Afghanistan. “The hospital is ISO 9001 certified, and the primary building material is rammed earth which is much more sustainable and durable, and the majority of the power is generated by the solar farm onsite. This is yet another example of impossible made possible through AKDN’s outstanding work. Seeing is believing”, says Shajahan.

AKES Geneva wanted to enhance their school reporting system in order to gain better visibility and insights. Shajahan conducted a process analysis and developed functional specifications and an implementation plan. Upon approval, Shajahan led a small team of TKN volunteers to deliver the new reporting capabilities.

The University of Central Asia, DJI, AKHS and the Bamyan Provincial Hospital, and AKES are immensely grateful for Shajahan Merchant's exemplary commitment and outstanding contribution on these seven TKN assignments.