THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
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-
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