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.