At the time, I saw of lot of students studying in Europe or Australia and stories came back about partying and the beach. I’m probably skewed, but that sounded more like vacation than anything else. Of course, I wanted an enjoyable experience, but I also wanted to go somewhere that I could study an interesting topic and really jump into another culture with two feet. Mongolia was that program: nomadism and geopolitics (the title at the time) was one of the most interesting ways for me to learn about economics, government, and the environment, and the SIT program connects students with stakeholders from mine-company owners, to former politicians, to nomadic families. Of course, the “far out” nature of the program was attractive too, and I knew that I’d forever be one of the few people in the room that studied in Mongolia.
Jesse teaches English in Japan after completing a summer project in Nepal. He received an honors degree of Sociology at Gettysburg College and two minor degrees in Environmental Studies and Peace and Justice studies. He hopes to start PhD courses in fall 2020.
Why did you choose this program?
What did your program provider (or university) assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?
They provided homestays both inside the city and in the countryside, as well as a handful of excursions to key sites. I can’t really think of anything I had to organize on my own other than during the independent study project month, which is exactly when you’d want to do that. Sometimes we were given an allowance to eat dinner. That was always fun exploring.
SIT-Mongolia did a fantastic job of linking us with organizations and people, including the former Vice President of Mongolia, members of the UN (one of which I got into an argument with over free markets that precipitated to emails, another with whom I had coffee later), organizations like the WWF, the WCS, and local non-governmental programs. They also connected us to nomadic families on several occasions, assisted with finding translators, research advisors, and a number of great lecturers.
What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?
First, be prepared by
- Learning the alphabet and at least 10 phrases (e.g. hello, thank you, my name is…) before you land. I hit the ground running and could immediately use Mongolia rather than waiting to the learn the alphabet. That paid dividends.
- Researching Mongolia before you land. You’ll be faced with so much immediate surprise that long study sessions gets difficult after you land. If you start before you get there, it makes the field experience a lot richer and you have a context for future assignments.
Second, take advantage of the weird timing because this is important if you want travel before/after the program.
Since the winter is harsh, the program ends early (fall) and starts late (spring). I took a spring program and with that extra time, I worked my way east by stopping in Nepal, Thailand, and Japan on the way to Mongolia.
Since you’ll ultimately arrive in Mongolia and have to cover that flight, booking a destination in the area is not that much additional cost. I know another student who took the Tran Siberian railway to Moscow after the program was over. That travel boosted the overall experience, and given the odd timing of SIT-Mongolia it might be easier than time than with other programs or a normal semester at school.
What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?
That question is really hard because the program is so dynamic.
Basically, the first week is an ice breaker where you meet and greet. Next you’re put into your urban homestay, where you have weekly course schedules (9-5 learning with lunch) for a few weeks. Until the last month, your urban homestay is home base for several excursions including visits to one of the world’s biggest copper mines and its attached city, a national park, a desert Buddhist retreat, the old Mongolian capital, and, of course, the nomad homestay, which lasts around 10 days and is one of the major attractions in this program.
For the last month, you have free range to conduct a study or take an internship. My cohort shared an apartment in Ulaanbaatar as we all worked on different projects. Five out of six did research and one person did an internship. You will have the option. During this time, you can do anything as long as you fit in the expected work.
Finally, there’s a post-program retreat, which was beautiful and relaxing and a nice cap to the trip.
Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?
My fear was not having a meaningful independent study project (ISP). That’s funny, right? But I had visited other countries already so the culture shock wasn’t really there. Instead, I spent too much time fussing over the ‘big questions’ that my project might answer. I was ambitious because I had actually started a Mongolia-related project at Gettysburg, but that inflated my academic ego and annoyed my peers at times when I wasn’t just smelling the roses. I ended up with a solid project anyways, but I feel that month is meant for training.
My advice here goes for any SIT student: yes, the ISP is an awesome opportunity, but at the same time this program might be your first field work (I am thinking social sciences, at least). Rather than trying to define ruthless concepts like authenticity or modernity by myself, I should have been cognizant of the fact that I was a researcher-in-training. It was my first time organizing participants, writing an interview guide, doing field work, etc. If I thought more about the process of research rather than some big, end goal, I might have had a better time and focused more on the exercise. At the least, ISP students can gather useful data and rework it later.
Work hard and learn a lot, but don’t think you need to solve your host nation’s economic/cultural crisis in three and a half months.
Why would studying in Mongolia be useful?
This is the ultimate question for any study/work abroad experience because it’s essentially “Why do that?” with a practical slant. Lately, I have been caught up with the idea of fundamental lessons, which can be learned in one context and applied elsewhere. Here are some lessons SIT-Mongolia provided:
1) You will navigate ambiguity: sometimes, no matter how sharply you observe the situation you simply won’t know what’s going on. This might be due to a different sense of punctuality or language barriers. It’s frustrating, but your job is to wait and experience the program. Once you accept that sometimes situations cannot be controlled, that empowers your sense of patience and tolerance for ambiguity.
2) You will have played a difficult language game: I admit that Mongolian is not common unless you meet Mongolians or do business in Mongolia. However, it is one of the most difficult languages to pronounce and if you’re an English or romantic language speaker, it follows a completely different subject-verb order. That’s mental gymnastics for you, and having studied Mongolian, I had an easier time using Nepali and Japanese, which follow similar word orders (and I have heard this is similar among some Asian languages). Also, it’s a party trick (You, “I can read and write in Mongolia.” Most people, “Ooooh.”)
3) You understand Mongolia's key issues and that is useful for discussing the following topics:
a) geopolitics – Mongolia was once the largest land empire ever. Now it is a poor yet democratic sovereign nation. You’ll study the geography, political history, and cultural/natural resources of the region, as well as their role in the modern state. Once you discover this framework it can be applied elsewhere and it is a useful framework for issues of identity, economics, and environment.
b) economic change and economic responsibility in post-socialist nations – following the last topic, Mongolia used to be controlled by the USSR. Now it’s a free market. You’ll see the good and the bad side of this transition and come to see why democracy and capitalism emerge from historical and located conditions (rather than being universal). Again, it’s a framework you can apply elsewhere, but it's the focus of the program and a fascinating topic in my opinion.
c) debates over environmental resource management – are nomads obsolete or productive? Is mining the way for Mongolia to find independence or immoral environmental destruction? You’ll see some speakers calling for nomads to throw in the towel while entire organizations work to sustain their lifestyle. One week you’ll have an anti-mining speaker then later you’ll meet someone using a mine to increase wealth and skills among small communities. SIT does a good job showing both sides of the argument, and that gives this program the liberal arts-esque lesson that one situation has many different interpretations.
d) modernity and/or traditionalism: in Mongolia ideals of efficiency and new modes of capitalist production belie narratives of national identity and long-standing traditions. For instance, government privatization seems to contrast the common use of pastoral lands. You'll find skyscrapers and gers (Mongolian yurts) just a few miles away. The city is juxtaposed, with urban and rural supposedly representing two sides of Mongolia, but there are fringes where these two overlap. The debates over capitalism, technology, cosmopolitanism, efficiency, and identity may be some of most intriguing of our time, and you’ll see that first hand in Mongolia (want to see now? compare the google images for “Mongolian culture” and “Mongolian city” and try to decide what's accurate).
4) you can now ride a horse and do other “rough” things: there are multiple opportunities to ride including a horse-riding training session the previews the 10-day nomadic visit, where I rode a horse each day to the herd. Aside from that, there exist different standards for transportation, sanitation, and comfort that you'll need to accept or suffer through during the program. It is not a semester in Norway or Italy like I've heard from my friends, it semester in Mongolia.
Last word: you might find these lessons elsewhere. Nepal offers geopolitics; Japan has tensions with modernity and tradition; soviet bloc states will teach you about transitions, and so on. However, I cannot think of a place that combines these factors like this. I haven't said much about the air pollution resulting from rural to urban migration (note the photo below) or the 8 lbs I gained from a carnivorous diet, but SIT-Mongolia is a valuable program which you should seriously consider if what I've said sounds intriguing.
If you have questions, contact me through this website.