The American School in SwitzerlandThe American School in Switzerland
What I Learned in Mongolia

By Skye Rourke ’20

In June, I traveled to Ulgii, Mongolia, with two faculty leaders—Ms. Ania Barciak and Ms. Emma Bassett—and six other students. And like almost every other 11th-grade TASIS student, I underwent a “life-changing experience” on my Global Service Program trip. But the thing is, although it seems like such a cliché to say so, we really all did. 

When people asked me how the trip was just after we returned, I had a million memories flashing through my head: faces of students we met, cows in the streets of the city, the gers we slept in, the classrooms we taught in, the well we built, and the heaps of cashmere sold on the streets.

But when people ask me now, the one memory that resonates the most, which I hope will stay with me forever, is the view from the plane as we flew over Ulgii, about to land, and how different it looked to me as we flew over it 12 days later on our way home.

We left school the morning after our last exams and spent what felt like endless hours traveling. We flew from Milan to Moscow, from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar, and then from Ulaanbaatar to Ulgii. Twenty-five and a half hours later we arrived at The Eagle’s Nest Hotel, owned by Bekbolat Bugibayulat. Throughout the trip, Bek helped us organize visits to parts of the city and experience things in Ulgii that we might not have had the opportunity to see and do otherwise. 

At the airport, we were greeted by two students and had a tour around the city of Ulgii. It was very dusty and both hot and cold at the same time—different from what I had expected. 

Starting the next day, we used the university building in Ulgii to teach English to the younger students in the city. A friend of mine and I taught the advanced English class, which consisted of about 10 students from the ages of 14 to 18. I imagined it would be strange to teach students our age, but it was actually really nice. I realized early on that they were so curious to hear about our experiences, culture, lives, and what we had to say. They loved having the opportunity to practice their spoken English with native speakers and were so genuinely kind, open-minded, and reflective—and so extremely hard-working. They picked up everything we did in class so quickly and were always super keen to learn.

We would spend much of our afternoons away on “excursions” or building a well or interacting with the community. Often a small group of students from the school would join us in the afternoons to show us around Ulgii and share things with us that they could not when we were teaching.

We also spent a few of our afternoons rescuing a puppy from the streets of the city, who we named Peanut Butter. In Ulgii, dogs are not kept as house pets; sometimes aggressive male dogs are used as guard dogs, but female dogs are usually left in the street to be rounded up two or three times a year with other stray dogs and killed. So when we found Peanut Butter, we organized papers to transfer her to Ulaanbaatar, where we found her a foster family until she was able to fly to the US, where she would be adopted. During this process, Bekbolat, who owned the hotel we stayed in throughout the trip, and many of the students we knew helped us immensely. 

It was amazing to spend the afternoons with students from the school, talking about all sorts of things and hearing what they had to share. Each student studied so hard, and most spoke three or four languages (English, Mongolian, Kazakh, and often German). They could read, write, and speak new Mongolian and old Mongolian even though, with Ulgii being so close to Kazakhstan, most considered themselves Kazakh and practiced Kazakh and Muslim traditions as opposed to Mongolian and Buddhist ones. 

One student there, Beksultan, was leaving to go to Ulaanbaatar for a university interview. He had been studying for years to prepare, and his English was almost perfect. He was hoping to get a scholarship at a university in Hungary, and a few months later toward the end of the summer, I saw he had posted something on Instagram that he got in. It genuinely made me so happy to see how successful he had been and how far he had come in achieving his goals. 

I have never met people more deserving of success.

I think the thing that amazed me the most about the people and students I met during the trip was their humility, their want to help with even the smallest things, their respect, and their determination. I have never met people more deserving of success. Flying over the city on our way home, I saw Ulgii differently: I knew the people and wanted the best for each and every one one of them I had met. It didn’t look dusty and dry like it had when we arrived. Because when looking down from the window, instead of seeing “the shell” of the city, we saw the faces of the students we had met, the jokes they had told, the smiles the little girls flashed when they were too shy to speak, and the impact we had hopefully left on them, as they had definitely left one on us.

See more photos on the TASIS SmugMug page.

Opsahl Global Service Program

The Opsahl Global Service Program was envisioned by Jan Opsahl ’68, who became the first international student at TASIS when he came from Norway in 1965. The pioneering program was launched in 2013 with major support from a most generous donation from Mr. Opsahl and his family to set up the Global Service Trust. This Trust, along with support from the TASIS Foundation, makes this incredible, life-changing experience for our students possible.

The Opsahl Global Service Program, which was directed by Zach Mulert through the spring of 2018 and is now led by Danny Schiff, transforms lives by providing every High School student a unique opportunity to connect across borders through comprehensive experiences that build empathy and encourage personal responsibility. Participation in the program—which is designed to awaken students to humanitarian needs, inspire them to build enduring, mutually beneficial relationships, and lead them toward a life of active citizenship and committed service—is a graduation requirement.

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