Holy crap…I'm living in Mongolia!

village to city

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He who wants to build high must dig deep.
― Mongolian proverb

For two weeks this June, an ordinary conference room—tucked away on the fifth floor of a quiet, unobtrusive office building just off Peace Avenue in Ulaanbaatar—became a house of dreams.

That may be hard to believe. For many people working corporate jobs today, conference rooms do little to stir the imagination. At best, they’re transient workspaces designed to host polite client meetings, perfunctory administrative reviews, and jargon-laden training sessions. At worst, they’re torture chambers, furnished with standard instruments of white-collar cruelty: PowerPoint presentations. Speakerphones. Flipcharts. Mandatory groupwork.

But for the twenty high school students chosen to participate in this summer’s Village-to-City project, Peace Corps Mongolia’s sunlit conference room, with its lacquered boardroom table and high-back swivel chairs, was transport to an entire other world.

These eleventh- and twelfth-graders are all top students, the best in their classes. But they come from villages (or soums) far from Mongolia’s capital. Most are from herding families. Some live with their families in single-room gers powered by solar panels and car batteries; a standard-sized ger could probably fit into the Peace Corps conference room, with room to spare. And while several of the teens had visited UB before, some had never seen a building taller than two stories.

Some background: For centuries, nomadic pastoralism has been a way of life in Mongolia, with nearly one-third of the country’s three million people dependent on herding (of sheep, goats, yaks, camels, horses, cattle) for their livelihoods. However, the economy is rapidly shifting, giving way to mining, construction and other industries. According to data published by the World Bank and the National Statistical Office of Mongolia in 2015, more than one out of every five Mongolians still live in poverty, the most severe concentrated in rural or remote areas. (Source: Household Socio-Economic Survey (HSES) 2014).

According to the World Bank:

[Herders] often live far from settlements, making it challenging and costly to provide basic services, infrastructure and communications systems to them. Their livelihoods are dependent on access to a fragile eco-system which is subject to degradation of over-grazed or mismanaged pastures, and highly vulnerable to severe climate like the harsh, cold winters known as dzud in Mongolian.

In 2001, following two years of particularly harsh dzud which killed almost one third of the country’s livestock, the Government of Mongolia and the World Bank began to work together to address these challenges and to increase the flow of public and private investment to herders’ communities in rural areas.

The Sustainable Livelihoods Initiative launched in 2002 has done much to improve life in Mongolia’s rural communities over the past fourteen years. But for now, few opportunities exist for the bright, motivated students who want to explore vocations beyond herding. For that, they need to chart courses to Ulaanbaatar. And that’s where the Village-to-City project comes in.

In its third year, Village-to-City brings high school students from the countryside to UB, connects them with some of the country’s leading businesses, offers workshops on professionalism and networking, and helps them understand the education and skills they’ll need to pursue careers in a variety of industries, from mining to construction to hospitality. In 2015, the program was headed up by Peace Corps volunteer Zak Murray, with help from three others: Ben Feimer, Ariel Klein, and me, as well as two Mongolian counterparts, Dashka and Ganaa. We expanded it from one to two weeks this year, hosting ten students and five teachers each week. The twenty students earned their spots in the program by way of an essay contest, in which they shared their future aspirations, and what they hoped to gain from the experience.

To call that experience anything but immersion in a foreign culture would be an understatement. Kids used to wandering around their soums at will didn’t understand the safety hazards of doing the same in UB. On our first night together, two students were turned back as they tried to sneak out of the hotel, against staff instructions, presumably to check out a nearby park. Business attire was a new concept; one student had to make an emergency trip to the market to buy slacks. Others were advised during the week that they’d need to make a quick change of clothes before heading out for their business visits. Following a trip to one of UB’s most modern high-rises, ten students and teachers piled into a single section of a revolving door—and got stuck.

But the hiccups were minor and worth it. Thanks to the generosity of our amazing business partners—Price Waterhouse Coopers, The Kempinski Hotel, the American University of Mongolia, real estate developer Mongolia Growth Group, recruiting firm Mongolia Talent Network, mining conglomerate Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi, conglomerate conglomerate The Max Group, and the United States Embassy—students learned first-hand about the wealth of opportunity open to them, and how to go after it. The kids toured construction sites, listened to presentations on the types of jobs available in each sector, from interior design to accounting, and received sage advice on what to think about when planning the next phases of their education. (The number one piece of advice, repeated by every single firm: Learn English. The highlight of the visits: a top-to-bottom tour of The Kempinski, given by the hotel’s general manager, from the industrial laundry room to the Presidential Suite. Extra time was allotted for selfies, naturally.)

To see more of the Village-to-City experience, check out the video slideshow we put together as a way for the students to remember the week.

We were only able to select twenty students to participate in Village-to-City this year. A pittance compared to the sheer number of smart, deserving young people living across the Mongolian countryside. So an important component of the project is encouraging the students to share their learning. Some of our best sessions of each week involved mandatory groupwork. The students filled tens of pages of flipchart paper, taped to the walls of the conference room, crowdsourcing their notes from each of the workshops and businesses, and turning their collaborations into formal presentations that they then delivered to one another. No shyness, no complaining; just a group of young people sincerely eager to present, to ask questions of one another, and to challenge each other with their knowledge and opinions. This Fall, they’ll use the materials they created to go back to their schools, and share the experience with their classmates (a requirement of everyone participating in the project).

At the end of the week, the students were asked to reflect on their experiences, and also to share their thoughts with representatives from each of the businesses at a closing certificate ceremony. Each of the students, down to the last, called the week ‘a life-changing experience.’ In fact, those kids who tried to sneak out of the hotel on the first night? Here’s what one of them had to say:

Before this week, I had no idea about any of this. That any of these jobs existed. None of my friends have any idea. Thank you for what you’ve shared with us. I won’t forget it. I want to go back and tell my friends what I’ve learned, and what we can do and have if we work hard and do the things you’ve told us.

These students now have a special connection with one another, having shared something that very few others have had or will ever have the chance to experience. At their prompting, we set up a Facebook group for them to stay in touch. I’d like to think that one day some of these students will go on, maybe while at university in UB, to mentor others as volunteer staff of future Village-to-City projects. I’d like to think that they’ll network with one another after graduation, helping each other find job leads, or maybe even be the ones doing the hiring themselves. I’d like to think that a few of them will find themselves sitting across from one another in a sunlit conference room somewhere, counting down the minutes to the end of another perfunctory meeting. That would be great.

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