OID: Tell us a little bit about yourself: Where are you from and what interests you most about development?
Niyara Alakhunova: I come from Kyrgyzstan – a small post-Soviet country located in the heart of Central Asia that gained independence 22 years ago. It is still overwhelmed by social and economic problems, which affect its development. I graduated from the American University in Central Asia with a BA in Business Administration and frankly never thought that my focus would become so global. In 2007 I started working for a USAID-funded project on agricultural development. In my work I applied my business administration skills in a very different but relevant context, helping farmers to cope with difficulties they face in the undeveloped agricultural sector. I was part of the implementation team working with the local communities with scarce agricultural resources to rehabilitate the irrigation system on dehydrated and stony lands to make it suitable for harvesting. That is how I began to gain first-hand experience in development. Additionally, I was involved in several small-scale humanitarian and charity initiatives which made me realize that I am capable of being helpful even if I can change lives of a few. At that point of my life I understood that I need a deeper knowledge of development and how it operates.
Violent ethnic clashes that happened in June 2010 in the south of my country mostly affected my desire to help people and it came clear to me that working towards development, ensuring social justice and human security should become a great pursuit of mine. I still don’t believe I have the chance to study at a university as prestigious as George Washington, and it’s great to be in DC, where so much of development theory and action takes place–it’s like being in the center of development.
OID: You’re halfway through your first semester: has anything about your interests changed or been challenged thus far?
Niyara Alakhunova: Before I came here, I thought I would concentrate on agricultural development and food security. However, as I started learning different sides of development, its’ history and approaches, talking to professors and groupmates, and participating in Elliott school social events, I was overwhelmed by so many new and interesting things I want to learn! By the time we had to submit our plan of study I made up my mind to concentrate on conflict and development, humanitarian assistance, and human rights. As I look at the list of courses available at GW; I’m always so eager to take more than I am eligible to!
OID: Tell us about your cohort and what aspects you enjoy or find challenging about being a part of it.
Niyara Alakhunova: First of all, I have to admit that IDSers are the best! I am very happy to be a part of such a great team of smart and interesting people. They make me feel motivated to learn more, and to develop further. It was a bit difficult to keep up with them in the early beginning, although they all told they didn’t see it! We have students from Mexico, India, Pakistan, Senegal, and lots of other countries, so it is always fun to talk about different cultures!
OID: As you are from a developing country, do you feel that your insight into class discussions differs from others in your classes?
Niyara Alakhunova: Class discussions are my favorite, particularly our Cornerstone class debates on different aspects of development. As our professors like to say, we have to learn so much from our peers. Yes, I definitely feel that being from a developing country and on top of that representing two ethnic minorities in from that country, my insight into class discussion is different from others’. I like to compare the theoretical knowledge I get from the readings with the reality of living in a developing country versus the experiences of my groupmates from a developed country. I am very grateful to Professor Fink, who encouraged my class participation and always supported my ideas. Dr. Sean Roberts (our Cornerstone professor and the head of the IDS program) has been working in my country for two years and it has been great to meet a person who has lived in my country and knows a lot about it.
OID: You worked for several years before going to grad school. How do you feel that helped you, and how has your grad school experience differed from undergrad?
Niyara Alakhunova: I worked for 7 years before going to grad school. It was a hard decision for me because I had gotten used to the work atmosphere, schedule, and way of life you can have being employed full-time, (and the things you can afford being employed!) I feel that this experience has helped me a lot, as I am able to look at development through the lens of my previous work and it definitely enriched my knowledge of how development works in practice. That said, being a student again is very challenging. It took me some time to get used to my new graduate school life. I did my undergrad in Kyrgyzstan, at the American University in Central Asia, and my grad school experience as of now is very different, not only because I’m studying in a different country, but also due to the work load, content of the coursework, greater focus on discussions and analytical thinking. My life has become different here, and it has changed me in a positive way. Feeling the spirit of school again is amazing! Grad school is tough, but it is rewarding too. Dare to dream, and get rid of any fears in accomplishing your goal!
OID: If you could draft the perfect position based on your interests, what would it be, and where would you work?
Niyara Alakhunova: I don’t set any limits in terms of my career interests in development, but I would be very much interested in working with conflict prevention, poverty reduction and human security programs at the UN, USAID, OXFAM or CARE. I have recently read a case about the implementation of a rights-based approach CARE used to increase accountability of development institutions and governments, and I was truly excited about their work and results. Being influenced by Amartya Sen’s book of “Development as Freedom”, I want my future job to be focused on removing “unfreedoms” that make a lot of people around the world suffer from inequalities, poverty and other social ills.