Meet me in Mongolia
by J. Besl |
The landscape is split between wedges of jagged mountains, massive spans of flat scrubland and blankets of rolling pine forests. Winters can be bitter, summers can be roasting and there's always the chance for snow on the Fourth of July. Subsistence living is a vital resource for a large population, but especially in the communities scattered off the road system. There's a state-run railroad, three major cities and an ever-present mining industry. But instead of moose, they have camels.
With similarities spanning everything from geography to demographics to industry and lifestyle, Mongolia sure sounds a lot like Alaska. It's the least densely populated country (Alaska's the least dense state) and home to the world's coldest capital city. Is it any surprise that Mongolia and Alaska are academically and diplomatically linked as well?
"We have so many similar things between Mongolia and Alaska," explained Sainshur Ganchuluun, B.S. Chemistry '14, who graduated last year thanks to available Mongolian tuition waivers (more on that later). "It felt like home to me here."
Anchorage native Darin Swain, A.A.S. '12-a sergeant first class in the Alaska Army National Guard-dittoed that sentiment. "I just had this feeling when I was there that I was home to a degree," he said of his time in Mongolia with the Alaska Guard (more on that later, too).
But first, a geography lesson ...
Mongolia is a large landlocked country sandwiched between China and Russia. A former Soviet republic, Mongolia was the first Asian nation to adopt communism (in 1921) and the first to abandon it (in 1991). With a strategic spot between two contentious Asian nations, the relationship between Mongolia and the USA is an important one. Within the U.S., though, that relationship is strongest in Alaska.
Fairbanks is an official sister city of Erdenet, Mongolia's second-largest city. Population rank aside, both cities also share a buzzing mining industry and an annual temperature range that can only be described as extreme. As sister cities, any resident of Erdenet can attend UA schools for in-state tuition rates, making UA a significant draw for students seeking an American education.
Sainshur originally hails from Khovsgul-a regular tourist spot known as the Switzerland of Mongolia-but moved to Erdenet at a young age for better opportunities. "My parents were all about education," she said. After graduating from a private high school, Sainshur considered studying in the USA, but the family couldn't swing the price tag. So she enrolled at the University of Mongolia, where a friend told her of the waiver opportunities waiting in Alaska.
"It was my first experience of America," she said of her move. Luckily, she connected with two other Mongolians-a nursing student and a logistics student-who helped her get on her feet. She estimates 20 Mongolian students attend UAA today. Now employed in an Anchorage chemistry lab, she's in a spot to lend the helping hand. "I really loved going to UAA," she said.
SFC Swain is on the opposite end, having traveled from Alaska to Mongolia for a month in 2013. Every state's National Guard is partnered with at least one foreign military, and Alaska's Guard is partnered with-surprise?-the Mongolian armed forces.
Alaska's Guard regularly works with the Mongolian military in trainings, exercises and even deployments; Guard members have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan as advisers to Mongolian military units.
Every summer, several hundred Alaskans cross the Pacific for Khaan Quest, a weeks-long multinational exercise named for Mongolia's national hero, Genghis Khan. The annual summer exercise allows for training, medical missions and, crucially, cultural exchange.
Each year, one unit is assigned to attend Khaan Quest but, thanks to Alaska's small population, many soldiers can return year after year. Swain is in regular contact with friends he made in Mongolia in 2013, and hopes to return in the future.
"Clearly, there are differences, but I see a lot of similarities," he said. "From a military standpoint it was very similar to the terrains I've worked in. I felt very comfortable there."
He recognizes the relationship as a benefit for everyone involved. "The biggest thing I think Americans need to understand is there's a whole world out there. Everyone doesn't fit in a box, there are so many different cultures," he said. "It's a huge benefit for our military and the Alaska Guard-any time you work with foreign soldiers it gives you an understanding about other cultures and being good stewards."
Swain hopes to return to Mongolia, and Sainshur will eventually return to her home country ... but it won't be easy.
"Whenever I go hiking or berry picking, it reminds me of the hikes and trips I used to do with my grandparents as a kid," she recalled. "It's really close to my heart living in Alaska and now, after six years, I love Alaska.
"Whenever I go back home, I miss Alaska. I feel like I'm Alaskan."
Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement