In March, Robin Higgins of Nelson was in her fourth year of work as a counsellor at the University of Central Asia in Khorog, Tajikistan, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Canadians abroad to catch the next plane home.
At the same time, the university closed because of the pandemic.
Now she’s teaching and counselling her students in their homes, online from Nelson.
The university’s two campuses are located along the ancient Silk Road transportation and commerce route. Most of Higgins’ students are from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, with a few from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria.
She says it has been a challenge for the students to study and be counselled from their homes.
“It’s a little bit tricky because some are in very crowded living situations,” she says. “Sometimes they don’t have great internet connections. Sometimes they don’t want to disturb their family or don’t want their family to hear what they’re saying.”
How is the students’ situation different from that of a typical student at Selkirk College, where Higgins was previously a counsellor?
“In general, they’re really close to their families. So a lot of them, especially in the first couple weeks [of being back at home] were loving having their mom’s cooking and just having time with family. But then I think like all university students, they’ve had this freedom they’d been developing — learning who they are separate from their family.”
She said because of a lack of social safety nets, many feel an urgent responsibility to get an education and a good job so they can care for their parents and siblings, now or in the future.
“There’s a lot riding on them being successful.”
Discussions in counselling sessions include mental health issues and other things that might sound familiar.
“Problems with their families or their roommates or their boyfriends. Stress because they failed a math exam. Are they in the right major? Will they find work after they finish?”
Higgins is a student and practitioner of pluralistic counselling, a discipline that goes beyond fashionable ideas about tolerance and diversity and into something more committed and engaged. It’s a collaborative approach that is “more flexible, humble and inclusive,” Higgins wrote in a recently published article.
Teaching about happiness
Higgins is also teaching a course about happiness and well-being to a group of 16 students who meet an hour each week online.
The course is based on the innovative and wildly popular Yale University online course The Science of Well-Being, developed and taught by psychologist Laurie Santos.
The course presents research on the psychological and sociological aspects of happiness and it gives students practice assignments: go out and try this or that technique in your life and report back.
“The course looks at more lasting kinds of well-being that come from things like mindfulness meditation, conscious gratitude practices, savouring good experiences, realistic goal setting, regular sleep habits, and moderate use of social media,” Higgins says. “So it’s really looking at research in what creates a more enduring and internal sense of happiness.”
Are these ideas new to students in central Asia?
“The students are pretty sophisticated and are online a lot, and I mean they listen to the same pop music as people in New York,” Higgins says. “But I think being offered something like this as part of an education system is quite new there, because their school system is a much more traditional kind of post-Soviet style.”
As a way of keeping students connected during the pandemic, Higgins started an online conversation cafe, which she quickly handed off to two student organizers, one from Kyrgyzstan and one from Pakistan.
It’s a mix of speakers and interviews, with question-and-answer sessions, on Zoom, designed to bring students together, out of their isolation. Usually about 20 people attend.
Recently the topic was how to gather oral history.
“Hopefully they will do some interviews of their own families,” says Higgins, “since they’re kind of stuck with them right now.”
Another discussion was about how to start an ecotourism business.
Higgins has also run a summer institute for the past two years, teaching basic skills in communication, conflict management and intercultural problem solving. She is still figuring out whether this summer’s institute can be done online.
Meadows filled with flowers
The University of Central Asia (with two campuses, soon to be three) was founded by the Aga Khan, a religious leader and international philanthropist who doesn’t believe in building universities in big cities. He wanted this one to have a developmental impact on rural regions.
“The road to the Khorog campus is 13 hours down a dirt road,” Higgins says, “to this town in the middle of nowhere and then there’s this beautiful campus.”
Higgins loves the area’s “spectacular turquoise rivers” and rugged mountains.
“In Kyrgyzstan when you are high in the mountains it is a bit like our alpine, meadows filled with flowers, and people bring their goats, sheep, horses and yaks up in high meadows, and they have yurts there.”
From her apartment window in Khorog, Tajikistan, she can see Afghanistan across the Panje River.
“It is very rugged, stark, high mountains that were part of the Silk Road, and there is a friendship bridge between Khorog and the village on the other side, so on Saturdays I would be looking out at these snowy mountains of Afghanistan and people would come across from the Afghan side to a bazaar.”
But at the moment these are memories, and Higgins’ current reality is pluralistic counselling at a pandemic distance. In her article referenced above she quotes the therapist Mick Cooper:
“Pluralistic counselling is about aligning my work as a therapist with the kind of world I would like to see emerging: one in which we all have more care and compassion towards each other. It means that, at every moment of my therapeutic or supervisory work — however small and transitory — I am contributing towards the kind of society where we can all more fully thrive.”