The Foreign Service Journal - April 2017
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APRIL 2017


had just given, many jumped up in excite-

ment, reaching for their cell phones to

photographmy newly organized notes.

On another occasion, in an effort

to encourage our students to apply the

rather abstract concepts of trigonometry

to their lives, we asked them to research

real-life applications that made use of the

semester’s worth of formulas they had just

learned. With a bit of coaching, they all

eventually arrived at the “aha” moment we

were looking for and realized that math is

all around us.

Besides teaching, I went on recruit-

ment visits to high schools around UB. I

looked forward to these visits at schools

that ranged from crumbling Soviet-style

institutions tomodern schools with new

buildings and technology tomatch.

I never knewwhat to expect—some-

times I wouldmeet the highest school

official and talk with him throughmy

interpreter; other times I would arrive to

find half-dressed students whose gym class

had just dismissed in a classroom that also

functioned as a co-ed locker room.

One time a loudspeaker suddenly

started barking loudMongolianmusic

along with a voice counting 1, 2, 3, 4.

Unsure of what was happening, I looked

around to see classroomdoors fly open

and students line up to squat, bend, flex

and stretch for this mandatory exercise


These visits and my own classroom

experiences confirmed my belief that an

alternative school like AUMwas neces-

sary. After two semesters of classes, our

students’ English skills improved tremen-

dously, and they were thriving.

They gained confidence, held their

heads up high when giving a class pre-

sentation, and learned to ask questions

and apply abstract concepts. They had

also figured out that they needed to do

their homework or risk a lower grade.

And then it all fell

apart. As Mongolia’s

economy slid deeper into

an economic crisis that

compelled the newly elected

government to enact painful austerity

measures, AUM was not alone in suffer-

ing financially.

Despite tireless efforts by the adminis-

tration and board of directors, AUM had

insufficient applicants for the upcoming

academic year. Two weeks shy of the fall

semester, in recognition of the economic

realities, the board voted to suspend


In the meantime, for unrelated

reasons, I had stepped in as acting dean

of general education. So after writing

university policies and schedules for

a semester of classes we would never

teach, I had to tell our students that the

school we had all come to treasure was

forced to close, at least temporarily.

The Bigger Picture

After the initial shock wore off, I

began to appreciate the bigger picture.

Yes, AUM closed; but we did achieve

something important and completely

different for this part of the world.

In my view, the American University

of Mongolia was five years ahead of its

time. The momentum was (and is) grow-

ing for this type of educational initiative.

Our efforts were not a failure by any

means: Our stu-

dents learned how

to learn, as opposed

to just memorizing,

and they learned to

think critically. Our Mongolian teach-

ers developed a richer understanding of

student-centered teaching, rather than

lecturing students without follow-up or

intermittent formative assessments.

I, too, have grown substantially in

this past year, not just because I was

given a job title outside of my comfort

zone, but because I learned so much

about the nuances of merging Mongo-

lian and Western styles of education.

Our team-teaching approach allowed

me to explore another academic lan-

guage, and my co-workers and students

enriched my understanding of why

things are done the way they are in a

country where the bureaucracy and

strange customs sometimes fluster me.

And in my next job interview, I can

say I was once acting dean of a univer-

sity—in Mongolia. At the very least I will

stand out from the rest of the applicant

pool. And, who knows? There is still

a possibility that I will be running a

university here in UB in a few months or


This is Mongolia, after all, where

anything can change at a moment’s