My name is Aaron Pinto from Canada – a 2017 graduate of the Politics and Security program of the OSCE Academy. Now, yes, me – a random, if not the only Canadian, who decided to study thousands of miles away from the comforts of home at the OSCE Academy here in Central Asia. I am a person primarily driven by curiosity, who decided to take a chance on this region.
Truthfully, the OSCE Academy was never on my radar, let alone Central Asia. But it came to me after some happy stumbling. Stumbling into two of our great alumna Elvira and Dilfuza while I was in Serbia, who took the time to share their academic experiences – it got me hooked and the rest is history.
At the Academy it was eye-opening to witness, debate and discuss political, economic, societal, and religious developments in this region. The Academy afforded me many opportunities – I attended conferences, trainings and was offered an OSCE internship. Somehow along the way, best thesis and cum laude were in my cards… but this was definitely not in my game plan…Since then, I was able to travel to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and spend time in Russia. I’ve even continued to participate in broader OSCE programs.
My curiosity and my desire to understand the region just snowballed over time … and to come to think of it, it all came about through happy stumbling. Fast forward, after graduation, I was lucky to work for my provincial government at the Consulate General of Canada in New York. I started as a Commercial Assistant, grew to a Commercial Officer, and became a Trade Commissioner for the federal government. I received an outstanding achievement award. As of this year, I’ve been appointed a Canadian diplomat being able to serve my country as the Government of Ontario’s official Trade and Investment Representative in New York and the Northeastern United States. I practice commercial diplomacy every day; advising and assisting businesses to set up shop in Canada, support Canadian companies develop business networks in the US, and encourage the commercialization of cross-border research and development. Going from contributing to a team as a youth to leading a team as a young person all within a span of four years. It’s been daunting but thrilling.
Now let me back track a little – way back when, there were some who looked at me funny and probably thought I was a weird person when I told them I was studying in Kyrgyzstan – “you know it’s one of the stans, right Aaron?”
But amidst questioning and some perplexity, I, like many of you, took the plunge. How many people tell you: you shouldn’t do this or couldn’t do that, or to avoid the strange or unfamiliar?
Well, my recent life has been very much about embracing difference; about taking the path less beaten.
As someone new to Central Asia, the Academy’s Master’s program was the opportunity of a lifetime to do just that. It pushed me to take on stuff that thrust me into areas where I was not proficient or comfortable. It allowed me to come to terms with things some may find weird or unable to fully grasp. But the Academy allowed me – and I hope for all of us – to challenge our assumptions, to think outside the box, thrust out of our comfort zones, to critically assess our world – respect different approaches. And the best way to do this is to surround oneself with diverse and passionate people – and what more could I have asked for at the OSCE Academy.
You are your environment. People change everything. The Academy and the students allow a paradigm shift to happen. To go from: “how could I possibly do this?” to “how could I possibly not?”
When you meet the Academy’s students, a switch goes on in your head. It ripples across your whole world, and without even trying, your standards go from here to here. This was the OSCE Academy to me. This is the OSCE Academy.
In my reminiscing over the past few days, there’s one thought that keeps recurring in my mind: the world needs more of the OSCE Academy. Where students from different nationalities come together to push the academic envelope, to embrace a culture of conversation across boundaries and of critical thinking, to indulge in a massive lesson in perspective. Now I know this Academy is targeted for Central Asian students, and not necessarily meant for me, but I strongly believe we also need more Europeans and North Americans to engage this part of the world – and what better vehicle than the Academy.
For me, being a newbie to the region, studying at the Academy in Kyrgyzstan was a paradigm shift. And like many of you, it impacted me directly and indirectly. Faculty members who taught me to think different, see differently or write differently.
Sometimes the Academy impacted in intangible ways: the way we move through this world, the way we think and interpret about the goings-on in the world, the way we are or will raise our kids and posterity.
I veered into a professional area a bit different from my degree, but I’ve left the Academy with way more than what I could ask for:
• A more critical mindset
• A deeper appreciation of humanity; where nothing in the world is ever completely wrong
• A greater ambition
• An openness to the world around me
• A network of friends spanning throughout Central Asia and beyond.
And the latter is so key.
This summer, Professor Indra Overland organized a meeting in New York City and around the table, I was amazed and humbled meeting our alum: An Afghan who fled for safety to New York and is now working with Pfizer, a lawyer at the World Bank turned software developer, a Kyrgyz alum working for the Kyrgyzstan’s Permanent Mission to the UN. You guys are working for non-profits, IGOs, Ministries, businesses, educational institutions, you name it. You are ambitious go-getters – changemakers, ground breakers, culture shapers. We animate the OSCE Academy in the world. Being out there; demonstrating our talent, our ideas, our know-how, our passion. We can continue to inspire possibility.
The convening power of the Academy – to bring select people together, and push them collectively even further to be able to think differently about the world – because the world needs different thinking – this is the true power of this institution.
Day by day, it’s less about fancy university or college buildings – with education being increasingly democratized, it’s much more about being globally minded and having international networks….and we have a really special one right here.
That’s it. That’s why I love being around this whole group of people and sharing the best of our Academy. Because this is the group of people that inspires possibility. There is so much power right here.