Peace Corps volunteers bridge American and Mongolian culture

An article featuring the Peace Corps and a couple of their projects, initiatives, etc. Original can be found here.

Peace Corps Volunteers have served in Mongolia since 1991, with more than 1,100 volunteers teaching English as a foreign language, supporting health and community development, and bridging American and Mongolian cultures.

The Peace Corps is an American organization established by the United States government under President John F. Kennedy in the 1960s. Its aim is to promote cultural understanding between the USA and other countries and assist developing nations. According to the website, “Peace Corps Volunteers work at the grassroots level to create change that lasts long after their service.”

In Mongolia, volunteers normally serve for two years and live with a host family in small family compounds, in separate apartments, or even in gers. After learning basic Mongolian, Kazakh, or both, they are sent to sites either in rural areas and remote communities, receiving a monthly allowance that is sufficient to live at the level of their local community; their salaries are comparable to what people earn in Mongolia. This enables volunteers to become truly immersed in Mongolian culture.

Volunteers must be graduated from university. They choose to work either as English teachers or as health/youth development volunteers.

Sebastian Zusi, currently one of two Peace Corps volunteer leaders situated in Ulaanbaatar, discussed why the Peace Corps is unique compared to other volunteer organizations and the importance of its initiatives to bridge cultures. Zusi believes that the fact that Peace Corps volunteers live at the same standard of living is especially unique.

“We are also more likely to be put in very isolated regions of the country,” he added, having taught English at a soum in Sukhbaatar Province before returning to Ulaanbaatar as a Peace Corps volunteer leader. “We also spend more time in the country than most other volunteer organizations. Usually, other volunteer organizations are three, six, nine, or 12 months at a time. Ours is 27 months at a time.” He believes that the lengthy duration of service for Peace Corps members enables them to entirely break through cultural and language barriers.

Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders serve as a liaison between the staff who manage the organization and the volunteers who work at sites. They additionally assist with curriculum creation. “My job is mostly to help create materials and facilitate training,” said Zusi.

Other volunteers also said that they felt as though they were truly immersed in Mongolian culture and contributing positively to its societal development.

Mary (anonymous name), currently a volunteer at Khentii aimag, is in her second year teaching English to children. She described a particularly rewarding experience.

“I worked a lot of hours my first year preparing my 12th grade girls for their university entrance exams. And two of my girls ended up being accepted into the top university of Mongolia, which, for a small village, is a rarity,” she said. “But to have played a part – even such a small one – in their success meant a lot.”

Thet Htar Win, another volunteer, wrote about the challenges of being a Peace Corps volunteer.

“I was a bit worried when I got to my permanent site. I doubted I could handle this new way of life for the next two years,” wrote Win. “I doubted being able to live without running water, living without a refrigerator, having only one hot pan to cook and having to make fires throughout the long, cold winters that reach minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit while living in a ger (Mongolian yurt).”

However, Win felt she adapted quickly to the situation and also expressed satisfaction at being able to make a difference in young people’s lives.

“I reach out to other students and community members by holding weekly English clubs and classes for anyone interested,” said Win. “By reaching out to the community, I have been able to build relationships beyond my organization, which has helped tremendously with integration. Sometimes in our clubs we provide life skills lessons for young adults to help build soft skills they will use outside the language sector.”

Myagmarsukh Narmandakh, a Mongolian, worked with Peace Corps in the Village to City project, which aims to provide equitable educational opportunities to students in rural communities. In 2018, the project brought 16 students and 8 teachers from the countryside to Ulaanbaatar to connect them with leading businesses, helping them better understand how to pursue professional opportunities in Mongolia’s evolving economy.

When asked how he felt collaborating with Peace Corps, Myagmarsukh reflected on how the experience shaped his career path and attitude.

“Volunteering with Peace Corps gave me a chance to learn something very new which taught me that serving and helping others benefits both you and the people you serve a tremendous amount,” said Myagmarsukh. “Peace Corps made a huge difference in my life. Not just the language thing. It changed my mind a lot. I understood that volunteering will be an important part of my future because it has made me happier, more content and more optimistic in the world around me.”

Zusi also feels that Peace Corps and its volunteer program is highly effective at bridging cultures. “I think that because we live at the same standard of living as the Mongolians and because we’re here for as long as we are, if there’s anything that we’re good at, it’s absolutely bridging that cultural difference. Being able to find commonalities, things like that. […] In two years you’re able to get to a point where you’re able to remove yourself from your own culture and not think that they should be doing things this way because that’s how I do things in my country. You start to see them where they’re at, and trying to find solutions that they want. Not that you think they need.”

In the future, Peace Corps Mongolia hopes to continue to improve its program for volunteers and the curriculum for English and health/youth development. It aims to do this by providing quantitative metrics to give concrete feedback regarding the teaching curriculum and teacher preparation.

Peace Corps also hopes to continue to expand its programs, in particular its summer camps and workshops. They currently offer activities such as camping trips and spa care getaways for older women. They hope to increase these offerings and strengthen ties to locals.

“By supporting healthy initiatives throughout their communities,” says the Peace Corps Mongolia website, “Volunteers positively impact youth in their adolescence and promote the establishment of sustainable healthy lifestyles.”

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