Leaving footprints in an incredible part of the world

By Irina Onipchuk

I remember my last week at work when I was telling everyone that I was going to begin an exciting adventure of my life: “I’ve been selected for an eight-month project with one of Seneca’s international partners, the University of Central Asia (UCA) in Kyrgyzstan!” And the most common reaction was “Eh? Kyrgyzstan? Where is it?”

This question made me feel even more enthusiastic about my upcoming experience: I was going to a country that not many people in Canada have heard about – what amazing stories I would bring from there! And I actually did.

A 13-hour flight from Toronto to Dubai where I enjoyed summer weather at the end of November during a brief layover. Then I took my next flight to Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyz Republic. Another four hours in the air. A driver was waiting for me at the airport and I hoped I would sleep in the car as the trip to Naryn, a remote town where the university is located, was another five hours.

But no matter how exhausted I was, I couldn’t close my eyes – breathtaking mountain views differed from valley to valley; simple villages and herds of cows, horses and sheep. I had already been to 30 countries, but Kyrgyzstan met me with an atmosphere that I hadn’t experienced before.

One of the remarkable self-discoveries I made during my stay there is that I can work seven days a week and really like it. Nobody pushed me, set up deadlines or loaded me with tasks – it’s just how motivated I was and inspired by the idea of making an impact on local life.

I played the role of Project Manager, Community Outreach and Engagement, and served as the bridge between the university and community organizations and groups. I researched local people’s needs, learned about UCA’s corporate social responsibility objectives and helped students develop their initiatives in different aspects of community life, such as education, environment, entrepreneurship and social care.

I met so many wonderful people of different backgrounds and built effective relationships with them. I worked on improving students’ leadership skills and increasing public awareness about students’ efforts toward the region’s development. I got comfortable giving interviews for TV channels and initiated a new approach aimed at sustainable relations between the Naryn community and UCA. I did a lot of meaningful work and could have done more, had I stayed longer in Kyrgyzstan.

One morning, in the middle of March 2020, my plans got upended. I received an email from my Seneca manager informing me that due to COVID-19, people abroad on Seneca-related activities were advised to return to Canada or their home countries. “Well, it still isn’t necessary, I have a choice to continue my project here,” or so I thought. That very evening, I learned that I had no choice left: the UCA management decided to close the Naryn campus and let students and staff return home immediately.

Immediately! This word also appeared in another email from Seneca and that time, I got the message. I booked a ticket back to Toronto and after an hour exactly, I already was in a taxi heading to the Bishkek airport. In between was an incredible one hour of my life – to suddenly realize that I was leaving the place and people that I most probably will never see again, to say words of gratitude and appreciation to my colleagues and students (unfortunately not to everyone, just to those I was able to meet before my abrupt departure) and to run back to my room and quickly pack my bags (many thanks to my colleagues who helped me with this.) And so ready or not, here I came, from Naryn to Toronto. But this is not the end of the story.

Flexibility and adaptability turned out to be the most required professional skills during the COVID-19 quarantine situation. Different locations, time zones and circumstances didn’t prevent us from working on the community outreach strategy we had started with students on UCA campus. I kept motivating the students to organize virtual activities for community groups, helped to develop action plans for the next semester and prepared a recommendation report to the UCA executive management.

As a result of the work we have completed, I am hopeful that as soon as the students are back on campus, they will be able to continue their community services smoothly and efficiently. People I’ve worked with have great potential to make a difference in the region and Central Asia, and there will be my humble contribution too. Isn’t it amazing to leave a footprint, even a small one, along with a piece of your heart somewhere in another part of the world?