Ariell Ahearn (Hartwick College) studied on SIT’s program in Mongolia in spring 2004. Below, she writes about how her time on the program has affected her in the intervening years.
The ten-year anniversary of my SIT course in Mongolia is approaching, which makes it a valuable time to reflect on how this course has shaped the trajectory of my career, lifestyle, and worldview. I participated in SIT Mongolia as a junior at Hartwick College during the spring semester of 2004, where images of the open steppe and fantasies of riding horses to class prompted me to choose Mongolia as the site of my study abroad course. I was not disappointed, as our countryside homestay commenced within a week of arrival. I was indeed riding horses to class — across the landscape of Genghis Khan’s birthplace, through the sparkling snow and over a mountain to the neighbor’s ger, where our language classes were held.
I vividly remember spending an afternoon helping a local carpenter prepare logs for building a cabin by shaving the bark from local larch trees with hand tools, as there was no electricity. Every morning we woke up before sunrise to milk the cows, collect dung for fuel, and fill our water containers from the frozen river.
From the beginning, the SIT Mongolia course, with the direction of academic director Ulziijargal Sanjaasuren, offered a cultural immersion coupled with a well-structured curriculum for experiential learning. There were endless opportunities to interact with people in the field — from nomadic herders to economists to shamans — where we were encouraged to exercise our ideas with practitioners, learn theory and research methodologies, and then apply it all in an intense independent month of research and a formal presentation to cap it off.
To have a first go at ethnographic research as a junior in college was an invaluable experience. It was an ideal laboratory to design a viable research project, test it, reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the design, work within hard deadlines, and be assessed by professionals in the field. I am currently a PhD candidate at Oxford University, working on an ethnography of changing patterns of rural work and family structure among nomadic herders in Mongolia. The initial language and cultural training that I received as an SIT student gave me a foundation to build my career as an ethnographer and learn the skills required of any professional project leader. As I refine my craft of research, I often reflect on how the foundation that SIT built in me continues to positively influence my professional and personal growth.
The friendships that I made in Mongolia during the SIT program have been long lasting. From my course alone, three of us went on to participate in the US Fulbright student program in Mongolia, and I have met other alumni who are studying as master’s or PhD students doing international field research. Others have gone on to work for NGOs or the U.S. Department of State. We are now professional colleagues, and our capacity to collaborate, lead programs, and achieve our goals is very much a result of the networks we built during SIT days. In Mongolia, I continue to maintain contact with my SIT host families and they are an invaluable support system as everyday functioning depends on strong and reliable networks. My Mongolian colleagues and friends have enriched my life, and I am thankful for the many rich opportunities to learn, share ideas, and create diverse intercultural partnerships with them.
Along with academic skills, leadership training, and building networks, the SIT course helped me to develop important life skills. Communication skills, patience, the ability to self-reflect, problem solving, teamwork, and planning are only a few of the life skills that SIT instilled in me. The faculty and staff of SIT Mongolia, as well as my fellow students, provided a safe (though challenging) learning environment for the development of these skills. As a PhD student with a rigorous research schedule and complex logistics to organize, the ability to solve unexpected problems, be flexible, and gracefully manage challenging situations are essential for the success of a project and building productive long-term relationships with research informants and collaborators.
Since graduating from the SIT program 10 years ago, I continually searched for ways to return to Mongolia to learn more, to build on the ideas that were germinated during that time. Now, as a PhD candidate, as I walk through the streets of Ulaanbaatar or ride horses in the autumn chill in my field site, I reflect back in amazement and gratitude on my first visit to this country and I am ever thankful for the rich learning experiences that it continues to offer even 10 years on.