Bringing international perspectives to the Academies | Aga Khan Academies

Bringing international perspectives to the Academies

On a sunny day recently, residential students at the Aga Khan Academy (AKA) in Mombasa participated in a community service project that involved painting a local school and putting up art décor in the building. Their overseer: Aga Khan Academy Fellow Kauthar Mohamed.

Kauthar leads Academy students in a service initiative at a local schoolKauthar, a former Aga Khan Academy student and graduate of the Fatih University in Turkey, has returned to the Academy as part of an initiative known as the Aga Khan Academy Fellows programme. The programme was officially launched in 2010 with a unique vision – that of bringing diverse perspectives and fresh energy to the Aga Khan Academies in Mombasa, Kenya and Hyderabad, India by recruiting university graduates from around the world to serve as Aga Khan Academy Fellows.
Young, dynamic and highly motivated, the Aga Khan Academy Fellows are hired for a two-year period to assist the schools in specific areas of work in tune with their own educational background and interests, and to work closely with the students as mentors. Their directive: to ensure that the Aga Khan Academies’ foundational values of pluralism, meritocracy and civil society are intertwined in all their school projects as well as their work with the students. As they embed these values in their assignments, the Fellows, in turn, absorb innovative ideas from their time on the job.
Asked what drew her to the programme, Haifa Badi-Uz-Zaman, a graduate from the American University of Sharjah, UAE and a second-year Academy Fellow, states, “I was drawn to the Academies’ mission of nurturing homegrown leaders and instilling a sense of civic responsibility in them. I was particularly interested in observing and analysing how this is done at the Academy since my future career goals involve reforming public education in Pakistan to be more values based.”
The Aga Khan Academies provide the Fellows with a wide array of opportunities both inside and outside the classroom to explore and refine their own career goals, and gain valuable work experience. As the Academies programme has grown over the past few years, Academy Fellows have been involved at groundwork levels in establishing or developing key areas at the schools such as university counselling, communications and enrichment programming. For example, the communications department has been a recent addition at the Academy in Mombasa, and the Fellows have been instrumental in establishing the school’s initiatives in this area, as well as in mentoring students to develop their skills in communications.

Haifa works with students at the Aga Khan Academy in MombasaAcademy Fellows also serve as dorm parents and help residential students from diverse cultural backgrounds navigate through their personal and academic goals and challenges. Fellows mentor their dorm daughters and dorm sons, care for them, and create a sense of family within their group. They also serve as liaisons between parents of residential students and the school, updating the parents on their children’s progress as frequently as possible.
Haifa talks about the extent of commitment dorm parenting involves in safeguarding and promoting the well-being of students. In addition to supervising study time, conducting morning exercise and ensuring a clean and healthy environment, she says that “dorm parents are also required to have family dinner together once a week, followed by bonding time where students and dorm parents play games and participate in various other activities…Through these activities, [we] try to have students reflect on the values of pluralism, and develop a global conscience and ethical conduct.”

Academy Fellows take Afghan and Tajik students at AKA Hyderabad to Snow World for a taste of homeAKA Mombasa's Head of Academy Raymond Zinsli notes the impact of the Fellows on the school. He says, “They bring a great deal of positive energy to the Academy as well as specialised skills, for example in coaching a particular sport. They are mature, confident and well rounded individuals who provide good role models for the students and who bring with them an adventurous spirit. They have positively impacted the residential programme as dorm parents, and have provided valuable support in key areas of work.”
The fellowships can lead to longer-term careers within the Aga Khan Academies. Zohra Lakhani, a graduate of the University of California in Los Angeles in the USA, initially served as an Academy Fellow in Mombasa from 2010 to 2012. A few years later, she took on a full-time position with the Academies and currently serves as the Service Learning and Student Leadership Programme Coordinator, through which she is developing an innovative service learning curriculum for Academy students. Asked how the curriculum impacts local community groups, Zohra radiates pride and ambition.
“The Service Learning Programme has a profound effect on society at large in that students are directly engaged with populations in their local contexts. Students closely collaborate with their communities to identify the root causes of problems and work toward finding sustainable solutions…Through their engagement, students build on their understanding of the Aga Khan Strands outside the school context, and develop their leadership skills, specifically those of empathy, sensitivity, teamwork, and creative and critical thinking.”
Kauthar, too, believes that it is imperative to work together with schools in the neighborhood as part of the Academy’s enrichment programme to create strong collaborations and partnerships in the local context.
“We work with schools within our community. We build bridges to connect with schools and tackle issues together. It benefits the schools and it benefits us.”

Sarra teaches a class at AKA Mombasa's Senior SchoolHow has their work with the Aga Khan Academies impacted the young university graduates? Academy Fellows are unwavering in their responses. Sarra Sheikh, a graduate from the University of Reading in the UK and an Academy alumna, states that her time as a Fellow has benefited her professional and personal growth.
“One of the things I will take away from the fellowship is my decision to turn teaching into my career. My experience at the Academy has allowed me to see the profound sway a teacher can have on the way students develop as learners and individuals.”
Says Kauthar reflectively, “I have grown and matured as a person, have taken on responsibilities that are even bigger than me. I am learning to accommodate other people’s ways of working and realising that things don’t happen at once. They take time. Being a Fellow has shown me that my actions and words can have a big impression on others even when I don’t know it myself.”

Samantha teaches yoga at AKA HyderabadSamantha Paige Caras, a graduate of Bowdoin College in the USA, is a second-year Fellow in Mombasa. She served as an Academy Fellow in Hyderabad in her first year and says her fellowship experience has transformed her.
“I never had an interest in working in education,” she states. “Now I am applying to M.Ed. programmes. I think it is safe to say that this experience has influenced not only my professional trajectory, but also opened my eyes to new cultures and belief systems. I have mostly been surrounded by African and Indian coworkers who are of different religious faiths. I have learned a lot from all of them, and I hope they have also learned a thing or two from me. I’ve found some amazing friends who have shared their culture with me, brought me into their homes, and made me realise that we are more alike than different.”
By Perviz Walji