Why did you choose this program?
I hadn't planned to study abroad during my junior year at Williams, but I found myself wanting to do something completely different from my routines in the US. After researching only a few studies abroad programs, I decided that living in Mongolia would be the ideal adventure. The Google images I found looked beautiful, the food sounded interesting, and it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Moreover, the study abroad coordinator at Williams said that SIT's program was excellent.
Without much other preparation or research, I applied! And I'm so glad that I did.
What did your program provider (or university) assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?
SIT Mongolia organized almost everything for me. They provided an excellent package of materials to review before coming, including a detailed packing list and information about Mongolia's health and safety environment. I had to choose and purchase flights myself, but the program coordinators met me at the airport in Ulaanbaatar and took care of me from there on out. They coordinated all of our classes, set up wonderful homestays, and led us on adventures across the country.
Students at SIT Mongolia spend the last month of the program doing an independent study project, and you arrange your own housing and research plans during that period. By that time, you are fully ready for the challenge!
What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?
First of all, go to Mongolia! You'll make incredible friends and have the craziest and most wonderful experiences of your life.
Once you're there, loosen up and enjoy the ride. Living in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar norms will be challenging. For example, I found myself getting furious at Mongolian drivers that refused to stop at crosswalks. And it can be hard to live with Mongolian families with different norms on smoking, mealtimes, and any number of other things. Just take a deep breath and remember to be compassionately curious.
What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?
You will do many different things over the course of the program. We spent a few months living in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, and taking courses with the other students in the program (12 of us, all American). Those included intensive language classes and guest lectures from Mongolian politicians, activists, and mining executives.
Other weeks would find us living with herding families in central Mongolia, exploring dinosaur bones in the Gobi Desert, or visiting monasteries in the birthplace of Genghis Khan. I also spent a month studying trophy hunting in western Mongolia as my independent study project.
Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?
Before going, I was quite nervous about living with Mongolian families, even more so a nomadic family of sheep and yak herders. What if they didn't like me or we couldn't communicate properly? Over the course of the semester, though, I discovered that I am far more adaptable than I'd thought.
You live with two families during the program: a somewhat English-speaking family in Ulaanbaatar and a family of nomadic herders in the countryside. Both of my families were wonderful, and I've been back to visit my countryside family twice since leaving Mongolia. We occasionally talk on Skype, though my deteriorating Mongolian skills are making that harder and harder!
As one of my classmates said, people are people. You'll empathize with your hosts and they'll empathize with you, even if some of the details get lost in translation.
What is it like to live with a family of nomadic herders?
It's awesome! You wake up each morning to hot milk tea, after which you'll head outside with your host family to separate the baby animals from their mamas for the day (babies stay at home while the big animals go out to graze). You might spend the next few hours helping your host mom milk the yaks and collect water, before heading inside the ger (aka yurt) for lunch and a rest.
In the afternoon, you might head out for a horseback ride with your host siblings, though you will be kept under a watchful eye by your 6-year-old host brother! After a dinner of mutton dumplings, you'll watch TV or play cards until bed. And you'll sleep soundly, surrounded by the vast Mongolian steppe.