University of Central Asia: Going Online and Quarantine Upsets Students

By Sharofat Shafieva*

NARYN, Kyrgyzstan (IDN) — The University of Central Asia (UCA) is a unique institution that brings together students from across Central Asia and Afghanistan building bonds between young people in the region. But, the pandemic has disturbed this process and disappointed many new students who were looking forward to this unique experience.

Mehrangez is a new student from Tajikistan who joined UCA last year to accomplish a major in communications and the media. The academic year of 2020-2021 at UCA started online for all students in the Khorog campus of Tajikistan and Naryn campus of Kyrgyzstan. Though the communications and media program is offered at the Naryn campus, the restriction of Covid-19 limited the travel of students to Kyrgyzstan.  Thus, students from Tajikistan were asked to join the Khorog campus to start the courses online.

“As a new student, I wished to start the academic year on my based campus in Kyrgyzstan. But we were asked to join Khorog campus, where I spent a month in total isolation and a year with Covid limitation and restriction” says Mehrangez.

A private, not-for-profit, secular university, UCA was founded in 2000 through an International Treaty signed by the Presidents of Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Kazakhstan, and His Highness the Aga Khan. The university works very closely with the Aga Khan Development Network, to promote the social and economic development of Central Asia, particularly its mountain communities. UCA has established its three Campuses away from major urban centres and they are on the historic Silk Road that is being revitalised today.

The University campus here in Naryn is a small community, where the buildings and facilities are clustered together, and shared by students and faculty. In total 170 students are studying in Naryn, and 42 of them are freshers, with 21 of them female.

To avoid the spread of Covid-19 within the campus, the university was in lockdown for most of 2020 and 2021. To protect the students and faculty from each other the university administration quarantined them for two weeks after returning to the campus. 

“We were isolated for two weeks in our rooms, when we came to campus and were not allowed to go out of the room at all. As I’m a person who enjoys walking and getting some fresh air, meditating, and gaining energy and motivation for further studies, it was very tough for me to be in the room. First, I started to lose the motivation, and the more the days passed the more I felt physical and mental discomfort,” adds Mehrangez

Robin Higgins, the university counsellor of UCA in Kyrgyzstan acknowledges that for many people Covid was stressful. “There were mental health problems that developed from the worries, the social isolation and the constant uncertainty about studies, internet, health and finances,” he told IDN. “We also had many students who lost family members during the pandemic, so grief and loss were also part of this difficult journey.”

In addition, Higgins said, “many of our students became sick themselves with Covid and I suspect we might have some students who are still struggling with some of the after-effects of long Covid which can impact energy, focus and overall wellbeing”.

During the covid restrictions, Naryn campus followed the dining hall schedule with isolation areas. The University doctor was available 24/ 7 as well as the counsellors. Additionally, during the lockdown, students were allowed to walk outside only in the territory of campus for 30 minutes. Specific schedules for different cohorts were applied.

“I was longer in isolation than others. After the overall quarantine, I had to stay the extra 14 days as I visited the doctor and went out of campus twice. I constantly wanted to sleep and I was tormented by constant headaches. That reduced my concentration and I couldn’t study well. Moreover, the classes were taught online and my faculty thought of me as irresponsible and not an active student,” says Mehrangez, who was not used to the schedules of online classes.

“Some students enjoyed having more time reconnecting with family and community, but for many, the constant uncertainties created anxiety, panic and sometimes depression,” said Higgins.

Mehrangez admits, that she was in fact impacted by this. “I wouldn’t say the issues with mental health were life-threatening but they were highly affecting the quality of my life. After the 10 to 15 minutes of panic attacks, I felt broken and a lack of energy,” she explains. “I started to forget things quickly, which also influenced my grades.”

She is now happy that they have come back to offline classes. “I feel very well both physically and mentally,” she says with a smile. “Even my coursemates noticed that I look energetic and healthy. Moreover, my grades during the offline courses are better than during online.”

In the current academic year, Mehrangez is back to her base campus—which is Naryn—and feels much better compared to last year, when she was stuck at Khorog campus unable to cross the border. She is full of energy to do her studies and even takes some internship opportunities. Her concentration is good and she can focus more on her studies. The improvement of grades is also visible.

As Higgins says: “On the positive side, during these challenging times many students reached out to counsellors, friends, community supports and internet resources to understand their mental health and develop a tool-box of strategies for helping themselves and others to cope with these difficult situations.”

“I can take care of my health both mentally and physically,” says Mehrangez. “I started to develop the good habits like doing sport, eating healthy food and meditating.” [IDN-InDepthNews — 06 March 2022]

* Sharofat Shafieva is a communication and media student at the University of Central Asia in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan.

Image credit: Sharofat Shafieva

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