MBA and MPA, in China and Kazakhstan: An Afghan scholar’s unconventional master’s journey

MBA graduate
Mohammad Habib Abdullah envisions a more prosperous, literate Afghanistan. Source: Mohammad Habib Abdullah

Mohammad Habib Abdullah is an Afghan MBA graduate on track to earn his second postgraduate degree — a Master of Public Administration (MPA) at Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Public Policy in Kazakhstan.

His vision is to lift Afghanistan — where one in three can’t afford to buy food and cover basic needs — out of poverty and ensure every Afghan can read. Big dreams require a solid foundation, which is why Abdullah set off to earn not just one, but two postgraduate degrees in two different countries: China and Kazakhstan.

 They are unconventional choices. For Abdullah, however, they make perfect sense. We caught up with him via email to learn about why this MBA graduate chose to pursue an MBA and MPA in these two countries:

Now that you’re an MBA graduate, can you tell us about your experience pursuing this popular degree in China?

Before applying to study in China, I was already curious about the country and its rapid development. I began to explore its trade and investment patterns in Afghanistan which further deepened my curiosity. 

I even wrote my bachelor’s thesis on the “Convergence Factors between Afghanistan and China”. Speaking as an MBA graduate, I chose China because it’s a diverse, vibrant, economically powerful, and fast-growing country. 

MBA graduate

“Before applying to study in China, I was already curious about the country and its rapid development,” he says. Source: Mohammad Habib Abdullah

More importantly, since China is one of the largest trading partners of Afghanistan, there is already a growing need particularly for future leaders of my country. The reason is to better understand the nation and harmonise the emerging bilateral relationship. 

I was also keen on studying Chinese — one of the most spoken languages in the world. As someone committed to streaming effective and sustainable models in Afghanistan, I wanted to learn more about China. 

Walk us through your experience there.

When I began my studies there, I had the chance to visit several Chinese companies spanning multiple disciplines and deepen my personal network. I also took time outside my classes to deepen friendships with government officials, professors, and young professionals. 

Moreover, during my time at the Belt and Road School of Beijing Normal University, I had the honour to participate in a leadership course taught by Bosnia’s former prime minister, Poland’s former minister of finance and the former prime minister of Kyrgyz Republic. 

During my semester of living in China, I learned the basics of the Chinese language which helped me learn more about Chinese cultures and make new friends. I also participated in several international conferences and forums.

This helped me learn about the wide variety of current global issues, get to know different people from diverse cultures, and create a network in order to work together in the future. 

Do you think it would have made a difference if you studied at a local institution?

Upon my graduation at Kabul University (the country’s top public one), I came to realise that if I studied for my bachelor’s abroad, I would have been equipped with better knowledge along with a new language and culture.

Unfortunately, my country’s education system has been devastated by more than four decades of sustained conflicts. Thus, during my undergraduate studies, I prepared myself through learning languages (English and French) so I could study abroad. 

In short, if I continued at a local institution, I wouldn’t have received the quality of education I have from my MBA graduate experience in China and my MPA programme in Kazakhstan. 

What made you decide to study remotely at Nazarbayev University?

Coming from Afghanistan, I consider the MPA programme at the Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Public Policy a very rich experience since it will offer me a world-class education and life-changing opportunities to immerse myself in Kazakh culture. 

More importantly, honouring my commitment to using business and governance to reduce poverty and illiteracy, my MPA will give me the chance to ideate my solutions to my country’s problems alongside top professors. 

I also have the chance to gain in-depth knowledge of Kazakhstan and take advantage of the uni’s vast international resources. To further add, I also get to learn about diverse global cultures through empathetic listening and interactions from across the world. 

MBA graduate

“Coming from Afghanistan, I consider the MPA programme a very rich experience since it will offer me a world-class education and life-changing opportunities to immerse myself in Kazakh culture,” he tells Study International. Source:  Mohammad Habib Abdullah

Hopefully, I’m slowly reaching my goal through my initiatives — Inside Cultures. Here, I invite international students from different countries to give a presentation about their respective countries and cultures. I also hope to share my love of my country and its people with my classmates. 

Due to the Taliban takeover, almost all flights are suspended so I was forced to pursue my studies remotely. I hope to rejoin my classmates in my country and start in-person classes soon.

What practical learning elements have you brought forward to the real world?

One of the things which I really like about the MPA programme is that the topics in all three courses are practical and can be implemented in the real world easily. The topics become even more applicable through case studies.

In fact, we study three subjects in our first semester. All of them include very interesting and practical topics for managers in general and for public managers in particular. 

What are your academic goals?

My academic goal has never been to simply improve my degree from high school to higher education. My main objectives are to enhance my knowledge and equip myself with the most updated subjects for today’s world. 

As an MBA graduate, I decided to study for a second master’s instead of a PhD for this very reason. I have plans to run my own business and work at high governmental positions in my country and change people’s lives. 

I believe that knowledge is only worthy if it creates new skills and so far, I’ve developed any. Some include leadership and management skills as well as research and analytical skills. 

Do you plan to progress into further study?

It’s my heart’s desire to serve and help people in need in different ways. I’ve always been curious about different topics and issues and in my case, this is possible through uni. 

Before my MBA graduate experience, I had several years of business work experience at family-owned companies. However, I lacked business knowledge and couldn’t improve it through self-studying.

In short, given my willingness to help more and more people through different means along with my curiosity, I would like to progress into further study.

Can you share a little bit about your initiatives for the Afghan youth with us?

In 2020 because of the pandemic, most academic institutions were closed in my country. I noticed Afghan youths feeling disappointed about their future. I also realised Afghans in general were depressed and stressed by the lockdown. 

As someone who grew up in Afghanistan, I have witnessed how individuals become trapped in situations of poverty mainly owing to their illiteracy, unfair distribution of educational opportunities, and the illiteracy issues which has led to many years of war and political instability.

I thought that it was about the right time to begin a role as an informed and educated Afghan youth. I began the YOUTH for YOUTH online platform to reduce inequalities between Afghan youth through quality education for women. This platform also enhances mutual understanding among Afghan youth of different communities through weekly virtual networking events. 

MBA graduate

“As someone who grew up in Afghanistan, I have witnessed how individuals become trapped in situations of poverty mainly owing to their illiteracy, unfair distribution of educational opportunities, and the illiteracy issues which has led to many years of war and political instability,” he says. Source: Mohammad Habib Abdullah

Through this, I’ve provided free courses and top-notch speakers to share their knowledge and experiences via Zoom. Our platform is helpful for Afghan girls and women who are not allowed to attend uni.

Then, because the pandemic limited mobility and employment for workers in Faryab, I founded the Yuz Yigit Charity Foundation. I leveraged my local network to interview and organise to distribute PPE, support doctors and act as community informants to minimise the risk of COVID-19.

What’s something most classmates in your course didn’t know until they started their studies?

So far, I’ve been learning many crucial practical issues and topics through my MPA programme. I used to believe that technological advancement might be one of the main drivers of growth in every country. 

However, I came to understand that technology alone cannot lead to growth in a country. It can create poverty traps in some cases and I realised that seizing technological opportunities requires a minimum level of skill, basic infrastructure, some previous technological experience, and favourable government policies. 

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self?

I would strongly advise myself to be more active in society in different ways. In fact, had I started being active in society from an early age, the scope of my services in society now would be far more effective. 

I would also advise myself to learn different languages earlier. It was only during my undergraduate studies, I realised languages are crucial for opening up future opportunities to help me realise my dreams.