The Foreign Service Journal - April 2017
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APRIL 2017




That Time I Was Acting Dean

of a Mongolian University…



still remember my excitement when

I first stumbled across the American

University of Mongolia website in 2014.

I had been searching for months for jobs

inMongolia—our next home, thanks tomy

husband’s work with the State Department

Foreign Service—but had nothing to show

for it yet. I wrote to AUMhopeful, never

expecting such a tumultous work experi-


The university was founded in 2012

with the vision of establishing a liberal

arts-focused American university inMon-

golia. In collaboration with the University

of Alaska, Fairbanks, AUMdeveloped an

engineering curriculum, which students

could enter after completing a “Bridge Pro-

gram” that prepared them for undergradu-

ate studies in English. Students would then

study for two years inMongolia and two

in Fairbanks. AUM received some funding

fromUSAID, and its English Learning

Institute was supported by U.S. govern-

ment grants.

The more I learned from afar, the more

convinced I became of the virtues of

AUM’s approach. I couldn’t wait to utilize

my skills as a social scientist to support it.

While I looked forward to the chaos often

associated with start-up organizations,

I was not entirely prepared for a request

two weeks before arriving that I co-teach

Nicole Schaefer-McDaniel holds a Ph.D. in environmental psychology and left

academia when her husband, JohnMcDaniel, joined the Foreign Service in 2009.

After assignments in São Paulo and Vienna, they currently serve in Ulaanbaatar. She

teaches in the study abroad program of the School for International Training and

continues to work with the Board of the American University of Mongolia to reopen the university.

a math class in the inaugural program.

“Teachmath?!” I thought frantically as

I googled “pre-calculus” and “college


It turned out that our team included a

Mongolian engineering professor, as well

as an Americanmath professor lecturing

from the United States via the internet. I

was responsible for assuring that our ses-

sions mirrored an American college class-

room, that our teaching methods followed

a student-centered approach, and that we

spoke only in English.

As I was to discover, however, one can

never be sure what to expect inMongolia.

Off the Beaten Path

Known for its eternal blue skies, harsh

winters (with temperatures below -30F)

and nomadic culture, Mongolia’s size

in relation to its sparse population is as

overwhelming as its beauty.

But daily life is not without its hard-

ships: things don’t usually work as outsid-

ers might expect them to, and the few

resident expatriates quickly get used to

vendors’ common refrain when asked for

a desired product: “

baikh gui

”—no longer


In Mongolia, things happen on their

own terms: holidays are rescheduled

with a few days’ notice, people may or

may not show up for appointments, roads

and stores close without any discernible

logic, and businesses regularly run out of


When I arrived in the capital, Ulaan-

baatar (commonly called “UB” in Eng-

lish), in 2015, I could see evidence of eco-

nomic hardship everywhere: abandoned

construction sites, empty restaurants,

growing shantytowns known as “ger dis-

tricts” (so named after the Mongolian felt



—residents pitch) and people

collecting food or plastic bottles to sell.

While the country has undergone

many changes since the 1990 democratic

revolution ended 70 years of socialism,

reform of the educational system has

lagged. Establishment of an institution

like AUMwas a huge step forward. Among

other things, AUMwas strikingly different

from the traditional Soviet-style schools

Mongolian students knew.

Our eight students came from all walks

of life, from country kids with extremely

limited English skills to one who had com-

pleted high school in the United States.

It took one student three days to

travel from his home in the far west

of the country to UB. He had given up

scholarships in Russia and Japan to stay

in Mongolia, and was learning English as

his fourth language. His determination

and cheery demeanor never ceased to

amaze me.

Teaching and Learning

One of my favorite moments occurred

during a review session in which I intro-

duced the idea of a “cheat sheet.” Used

to learning by rote memorization, my

Mongolian students had never thought

about rewriting their notes or organizing

the information in a way that made sense

to them.

When I showed themmy review sheet

from a lecture my American counterpart