Ten Washington and Lee University students were chosen in 2015 for the International Student Collaboration, a program funded by a grant from the Endeavor Foundation. The program allowed five international students to each take home an American student for the summer.
During the summer months, the international students introduced their guests to the food and culture of their homeland and, in turn, saw their home country through new eyes. The pairs also worked on community service and research projects together.
The students recently took a little time to talk about their experiences and how they were affected by the opportunity.
Meera Kumar '16 and Oyumaa Daichinkhuu '16
What memories about the area you visited will stick with you the most, and why?
Meera: I had a number of memorable experiences, from being interviewed by a national newspaper about the Mongolian National Ballet to finding Indian food — and even an entire (50-person-strong) Indian community — in Ulaanbaatar. As an art history minor, I was riveted to find out about Mongolia's deep Buddhist roots and iconography and especially enjoyed visiting different Buddhist monasteries. While working at the Mongolian Economic Forum, I befriended some local girls and managed to get roped into a road trip where we ended up camping in a traditional ger just miles from the Russian border. My most remarkable experience, however, would have to be meeting — and taking a selfie with — Mongolian Prime Minister Chimediin Saikhanbileg.
What was it like introducing your study partner to your homeland? When you saw it through their eyes, what was different about it for you?
Oyumaa: After having studied and traveled abroad for an extensive period of time in the U.S. and Europe, it was very exciting to finally switch roles and introduce someone to my home country and culture. As a typical journey from the U.S. to Mongolia takes several layovers and two days at the least, I rarely have friends and family over for a visit, which made Meera's visit to Ulaanbaatar all the more meaningful and special. Living and working with her for a month, I had the rare opportunity to look at life in Mongolia through a foreigner's lens and seek answers to many questions that I had been accustomed to take as a given.
However, what really surprised me was that our month together raised questions and provided insights into not only Mongolian history and traditions, but also into my individuality. Both Mongolia and W&L have had a huge influence on my identity and personal values, but Meera's visit to Mongolia was the first time I got to see my two major worlds intersect. Throughout the month, I realized the place and significance my family and my Mongolian upbringing have in my identity.
Please briefly describe your project. Why did you choose this topic?
Meera: As economics majors who are passionate about social issues and international development, Oyumaa and I wanted an experience that would allow me to gain a broader understanding of the Mongolian socioeconomic situation, while providing her with the opportunity to make real change in her home country.
We thus chose to work with the Zorig Foundation, a pro-democracy NGO (and largest nonprofit in Mongolia) that works on community development, fostering the next generation of leaders, and educating the public about the role of democracy. Our internship was rotational in nature, and we were presented with a number of special opportunities, from attending the UNDP conference and working at the Mongolian Economic Forum, to developing a timeline of the Mongolian Democratic Revolution for an oral histories project and spending a week assisting the eco-banking division at XacBank.
Oyumaa: During our month in Mongolia, we undertook a rotational internship at Zorig Foundation - a non-profit NGO with programs in the fields of good governance, community and education among others. Given the foundation's extensive presence and outreach into the Mongolian community, economy and politics, Meera and I had the unique opportunity to observe and engage in a wide variety of work. From volunteering at the Mongolian Economic Forum to researching into the Mongolian Democratic Revolution of 1990, we amplified our understanding of modern Mongolian society from diverse facets. Although Mongolia's socioeconomic development has always been an issue of utmost importance for me, our internship at Zorig was the first time I explored the issue from an academic and professional viewpoint.
What are the most important takeaways from the research to share with the university audience (and beyond), and how do you plan to do that?
Meera: More than the specific projects that we worked on, I was taken aback by the breadth and scope of the world of international development. When most people think of development, they think of organizations that directly provide aid to governments to alleviate poverty and create economic growth. However, I realized through conversations with leaders at UNICEF, IFC and Zorig itself that players in the development sector include federal legislators, local leadership, NGOs, aid organizations and even private companies; policy is a group effort.
Another important takeaway was the national focus on participatory forums and accessible government — if anything, my experience taught me the importance of being a leader in my community and, more importantly, voting on issues that matter. Democracy is a gift, and we must be active participants in the political process. Zorig's efforts in empowering youth through democratic summer camps and scholarship programs were especially heartening to see. This year, the SAIL (Student Association for International Learning) showcase featured the Zorig Foundation as the organization of interest. I was pleased to speak about Zorig's mission and help raise funds for an NGO that truly makes a difference in Mongolia.
Oyumaa: The unique aspect of our internship was of course the ability to peek into different fields and get different takeaways depending on our interests. As an economics major, I found volunteering at the Mongolian Economic Forum and hearing various academics and economists speak about the future of our economy the most informative and relevant. Particularly, as the Mongolian economy's heyday, with a staggering 17.5 percent GDP growth rate in 2011, has long passed, issues concerning the state of the economy have been widely debated. In particular, as the Mongolian economy is highly reliant on the mining sector and the foreign direct investments from multinational metals and mining corporations, diversification is key for the long-term, sustainable growth of the economy. Otherwise, the Mongolian economy remains an unsustainable one, with its fate often determined by the global commodity market. In addition to sharing these findings and realizations through classroom and informal discussions on campus, I have actively had conversations with other Mongolian students and professionals also concerned about Mongolia's economic development.
How do you think this project has enriched your overall educational experience at W&L?
Meera: My interest in Mongolia and, more broadly, in international development, has impacted both my coursework and my long-term plans. Coming back to campus I was able to take a class on Buddhist art in which I explored connections between religious depictions of Garuda across India, Tibet and Mongolia. As for the future, I hope to be involved in the policy realm — and perhaps even work for an institution such as the World Bank, where I can create meaningful change on a regional and international scale.
Oyumaa: The experience at Zorig Foundation had been very interconnected with both my educational and pre-professional experience at W&L. In addition to seeing practical applications of what I have learned in macroeconomic and global politics courses on campus, I clarified my long-term career goals and aspirations through the internship itself and the various discussions I had with many professionals midway into their careers.
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