Oct. 19, 2018

'Our collaboration is rich and varied'

University of Calgary, the Aga Khan Development Network and the Ismaili community build partnerships and learning
At Aga Khan University’s Stadium Road campus in Karachi, students gather in the courtyard of the Medical College between classes and rounds at the Aga Khan University Hospital.

Aga Khan University’s Stadium Road campus in Karachi.

Aga Khan University

In her citation for the conferral of an honorary degree to recognize His Highness the Aga Khan, Dr. Elizabeth Cannon, University of Calgary president and vice‑chancellor, highlighted some of the “rich and varied” collaborations between the university and the Aga Khan Development Network.

Over the last 20 years, UCalgary has collaborated on a number of projects across the world within diverse areas of the Aga Khan Development Network, in particular the Aga Khan University (AKU), Aga Khan Education Services and Aga Khan Foundation Canada.

Connections have been made with the faculties of graduate studies, nursing and arts as well as the Cumming School of Medicine and the Werklund School of Education, among others.

International researchers and students from AKU have come to UCalgary, and UCalgary researchers and students have participated in programs at AKU campuses in Pakistan, Kenya and Uganda.

Here are two examples of these rich and varied partnerships, including where UCalgary also works closely with the Ismaili community and the Aga Khan Council for the Prairies, and which are happening right here in Calgary:

Faculty of Arts Arabic Languages and Muslim Cultures program informed by and connected to local Ismaili community

In fall 2013, in response to requests from students, the Faculty of Arts piloted a program in Arabic Languages and Muslim Cultures, including courses in Arabic language. The program also aimed to engage with the Calgary Muslim community and build bridges on inter-cultural understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims as much as between diverse Muslim societies and cultures.

Prior to the program being piloted, consultations were made with individuals in the local Ismaili community in Calgary as well as Simon Fraser’s Centre for Comparative Muslim Studies.

Dr. Mushegh Asatryan, PhD, an assistant professor of Arabic and Muslim Cultures in the Faculty of Arts, joined the program in 2015 and then developed several new courses. He now teaches five courses: Muslim Civilizations I & II and Muslim Cultures through Film, as well as Islam and Islam in the Modern World through the Department of Classics and Religion.

“In an increasingly globalized world, the knowledge of languages, and of the history and culture of various parts of the world, is crucial for success in many fields,” says Asatryan.

  • Read more about the Aga Khan in a special edition of UToday

“Many of our students come from the Muslim community and are eager to learn more about the history of their tradition, which we enable them to do,” Asatryan continues. “Additionally, students who would like to pursue graduate degrees in the humanities and the social sciences, and who would like to work in the Muslim and the Arab world, are able to gain with us the skills and knowledge necessary for that.”

Asatryan, together with Dr. Rachel Friedman, PhD, an undergraduate adviser and instructor who teaches Arabic at the School of Languages, Linguistics, Literatures and Cultures, has also organized several popular events.

“Since its inception, our program has organized a number of highly attended events, including presentations by writers, filmmakers, war journalists, and academics,” says Asatryan.

Celebrations like Milad-un-Nabi, the commemoration of the life of Prophet Mohammed, were also organized. “Each was attended not just by our students and faculty, but numerous residents from Calgary. Most of these events addressed issues that directly pertain to the Muslim world today, so they have found great resonance among the attendees,” says Asatryan. “One of our aspirations is to serve as a hub that can co-ordinate academic and cultural activities pertaining to the Arab and Muslim world at the University of Calgary.”

Werklund School of Education program partners with local Ismaili community for tutoring support and mentorship

For seven semesters so far, the goal of the Werklund School of Education’s Service-Learning for Diversity program has been to foster “cultural humility” in pre-service teachers, says Dr. Darren Lund, PhD, a professor at the Werklund School of Education and the co-founder and co-ordinator of the Service-Learning for Diversity program.

So in 2017, when members of the Aga Khan Council for the Prairies approached Lund to work together to build an innovative and positive youth tutoring program that would also include a peer mentorship component for older youth, Lund was “delighted.”

“As one of Service-Learning’s community partners, the Aga Khan Council for the Prairies offers our undergraduate BEd students a chance to learn much more about this segment of the Calgary Muslim community, and make meaningful connections with young people. It’s important to study about different religions and cultures on campus, but the direct weekly experiences in the community really enrich their experiences,” says Lund. “This pilot program has also provided some important tutoring and mentorship opportunities with our students and the Ismaili Muslim community.”

Lund, along with other Werklund staff, sat down with the Aga Khan Council for the Prairies leadership and planned the service learning program together. The council organizing team worked to identify junior high students from the community who could benefit from tutoring support. The Werklund students also had the opportunity to mentor high school students, aspiring teachers and young professionals from the Ismaili community who were looking to change careers.

Katie Mulvihill is a Werklund BEd student who participated in the Service-Learning for Diversity program, which is a voluntary option through the course EDUC 450, Diversity in Learning. With four other UCalgary students, she volunteered twice weekly with the council from January to March 2018.

“I think being there twice a week with the same students and having that routine was helpful. Students were excited to meet with us each week and saw some improvement,” says Mulvihill. “I also remember how welcoming and accommodating the council facilitators were. The communication was fantastic and they were always checking with us to make sure things were going smoothly.”

Lund says he “sincerely hopes this is the beginning of a lasting and mutually beneficial relationship between the Werklund School of Education and the Ismaili community.”

More partnerships to come as new Memorandum of Understanding signed

On Oct. 17, in addition to the conferring of an honorary degree upon His Highness the Aga Khan, Cannon and University of Calgary Provost Dru Marshall also met with Aga Khan University President Dr. Firoz Rasul, and Provost Dr. Carl Amrhein.

The two institutes of higher learning signed a formal Memorandum of Understanding to promote, facilitate and consolidate international co-operation in equitable human advancement, improving the health of populations, and social justice. It’s yet another step that is sure to open the door to many more innovative collaborations to come.