Alumni Spotlight: Emily Mahon


Why did you choose this program?

I wanted to do something unusual and adventurous during the summer, and volunteering abroad was the perfect way to do this while sharpening my own skills and helping others. I chose to do a High School Special with Projects Abroad because of the stellar reviews the program had, as well as the very clear itinerary. I felt that I knew exactly what I would be doing and what to expect during the project.

The Projects Abroad staff were also very quick to respond to my questions, which made me feel really comfortable with the support I was receiving, and ultimately convinced me that I was in good hands. Because of that, I decided to take the leap.

What did your program provider (or university) assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

Projects Abroad handled all in-country activities, hotel accommodation, all meals (excluding breakfast, which was provided at the hotel), all transportation (including to and from the airport), and organizing our placement at the varies institutions. They also offered to help flights, but I opted to make my own way to Mongolia so a friend and I could stop in Korea first.

The accommodations were clean, the food was great, the transportation was reliable, and all of our activities were insanely fun. I was really satisfied with the services Projects Abroad provided.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

It took me nine months between discovering this program and finally deciding to apply. During that time, I agonized over whether it was the right decision. Was it safe? Was it worth the time and money? Would I enjoy the experience? I am so glad I followed through the find out the answers to those questions, which was 'yes' all around. I wish I had had someone to talk to beforehand to give me advice, so if you're looking for that person, let me be the one to say it's worth it.

As for something I wish I'd know, English isn't commonly spoken (which is fair), so I was relying on Google Translate quite a bit. It was effective to a point, but I wish I knew a few phrases in Mongolian beforehand.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

On the weekdays, we would wake up at around 8 am and go to the hospital or our placement for the day (orphanage, community center, etc). We got to do really amazing things in our placements, my favourites being giving basic health checkups (blood pressure, blood glucose and wound cleaning) to the homeless, as well as sitting in on surgeries. I was super lucky because I got to see two deviated septum surgeries and one hysterectomy. I would never even get close to an OR as a high school student in Canada, so those were opportunities I cherished and that gave me a deep insight into the life and duties of doctors. Sometimes we would have workshops, like bandaging, inserting IVs, or CPR.

We'd be at our morning placements for 2-3 hours before heading to lunch at a local restaurant. After lunch, we'd head to one or two other placements or activities, like a museum visit or the ambulance call center. Depending on the day and how busy the morning had been, we might take a break for an hour or two back at the hotel (but this was usually on weekends) before heading out for dinner.

After dinner, we generally had free time until lights-out, which was around 10 pm. We had a few later nights with ambulance calls; I think my latest one was 2 am, but I know one of my friend's went till 8 am the next morning. If you're not a morning person, you can opt-out of the night shift.

The weekends were filled with cultural activities like watching traditional performances, visiting the countryside, or doing karaoke (which was so fun! Everyone was happy to dance and sing, and we all had a blast). All the activities were done as a group, which made it really easy to get to know everyone.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

I had two biggest fears: the first was the travel. I'm from Canada, so heading to Asia with just me and my friend who was a year younger than me was a huge deal! I was terrified about the language barrier, and what I would do if my flight was delayed or canceled. I eventually realized that I had absolutely no control over what was going to happen. Rolling with the punches is a huge part of international travel. Treat the people you meet with kindness, be prepared and aware, and you'll be able to deal with anything. I was worried for months, but out of the eight flights, my friend and I took between our first stop in Korea and then over to Mongolia, only one of them was delayed, and only by 45 minutes.

My other fear was that I wouldn't make friends or get along with the people on the trip. After all, you're kind of stuck with them for a few weeks. On our very first night, we had a group dinner, and I was super scared about connecting with the other volunteers. I tried to be open and get to know the other volunteers, and what do you know, it worked! I left Mongolia with wonderful friends who I still talk to all the time. I realized that most people, if given the chance, are going to like you. And that people who are willing to spend their time volunteering are usually sweet, giving, and intelligent! I genuinely connected with everyone on my trip and I'm still in touch with them today.

What was your favorite experience while studying abroad?

My favourite thing we did on the trip placement-wise was going on ambulance calls. I would never have the chance to do an ambulance ride-along as a student in Canada, and it was a really cool way to see the city. It wasn't a tour or an attraction, though; you were in people's houses, treating their actual illnesses and injuries. It was really exciting and I learned a lot about my own interests in the field of medicine, all while getting to drive through all the beauty Ulaanbaatar holds.

My favourite activity that we did was our visit to the countryside. Mongolia's countryside is famous for a reason: its vast open steppes and green mountains are like nowhere else in the world. While in the country we visited a Buddhist monastery, crossed a rickety rope bridge, saw the famous statue of Chinggis Khan, climbed Turtle Rock, and rode horses and camels. They were truly unique opportunities that I don't know if I would have done on my own.

My favourite memory was when my friends decided they wanted to dye their hair and we were all like "Sweet, okay!" We went to the State Department Store, bought hair dye (via Google Translate because we couldn't find it on our own), and hunkered down in our hotel room. While the box came with bleach and colour, it didn't come with combs, so we had to use the hotel-provided toothbrushes to spread the dye in! Our dye jobs actually turned out relatively well for being done with toothbrushes, and hanging out in our hotel room with cups full of hair dye and toothbrushes full of bleach is something I will never forget.