For the past few years at AUCA, the central required text for freshmen during our orientation is “The Allegory of the Cave” from Plato’s Republic. As is well known, Socrates asks his interlocutors to perform a thought experiment, wherein they imagine perceived reality as merely a pale simulacrum of actual reality, as if they were in a cave seeing not real people but only the shadows of real people projected on the cave wall. He imagines that a person leaving the cave and suddenly discovering the actual world would be disoriented and amazed by the brightness of the light and the wonders of reality. Then he asks whether this person has an obligation to go back down into the cave to explain the situation to those left behind and, presumably, to lead them to true understanding. Our students don’t have much difficulty recognizing that, as the beneficiaries of an AUCA education, they have something in common with Plato’s cave escapees. They express a variety of opinions on their level of responsibility to the communities they have left behind (family, peer groups, village or town, nation) but to us the important thing is that from the very beginning of their program they have to face the question of whether and what they should give back.
As they think about their lives over the four years at AUCA, students probably realize that “giving back” can take many forms. Many of our students volunteer in projects to help people less economically and socially well off than they are and they see that this giving back to communities can take the form of financial contributions, time, or attention. They also mentor younger AUCA students and provide leadership at the university level. We have also introduced a number of innovations to convince students of the contribution AUCA makes to their education (in the form of financial aid alone, we cover approximately 60% of the costs of student education) including providing transparent budget data, financial aid information that reflects the true cost of instruction, and a loan program to help students recognize that they are making a personal investment in their education. It is our hope that in the long run, these programs will encourage students to understand that they have benefited financially from AUCA resources and that, when they are in a position to do so, they should choose to give back to the university. And I am happy to report that in the past few years a number of our older alumni have chosen to make substantial gifts to support student scholarships as a way to give back to a university that helped them when they were younger.
Even more than a financial contribution, however, we hope that at least some of our students will recognize that they do have an obligation to “go back into the cave” and assist their countries and towns with their talents and time. After all, the mission of AUCA is to prepare future leaders of Central Asia, and while we recognize that there are many varieties of leadership, it is our belief that the main give back AUCA can provide is in the form of young women and men who really will change their societies for the better.
Andrew Wachtel, President