Ask the average American about Mongolia and you might not get much beyond Genghis Khan — if you’re lucky. You could’ve counted NLU Professor Kristin Lems in this large group not in the know until October 1, when she traveled to Mongolia as part of a project to help teachers of English language learners in this exciting setting.
In 2013 Lems was named a Fulbright Senior Specialist in EFL/Applied Linguistics — an honor in itself — which added her name to a roster to partner with higher education institutions across the globe. Lems had once been a Fulbright Scholar in Algeria and had done ESL teacher training in Iran and Chile, so she was eager to bring her expertise to a new country. When a Mongolian former graduate assistant and NLU alum, Tsengelmaa Tserendorj (M.Ed., 2011), contacted her about the possibility of doing faculty development at the National University of Mongolia, she jumped at the chance.
“To me that’s what it’s all about,” Lems said. “That’s why I picked this profession because I didn’t want to just be in one place. I wanted to tour the world and make friends and be of use.”
Tserendorj is now the chair of the English department at the National University, and together she and Lems crafted a proposal that was approved for funding by the State Department. Lems spent the first 20 days of October based in the capital city of Mongolia, Ulaan Bataar, teaching ESL and bilingual education to National University faculty teaching in the English major and minor departments. Lems also presented to the professors of other foreign languages as well as to professors of English from 10 public and private universities in Ulaan Bataar.
There’s certainly a challenge to bringing English-teaching strategies to a country that existed for decades in the shadow of the old Soviet Union and today feels the sway of South Korea much more, but Lems said she found the audience receptive. There is a generation gap in English skills in Mongolian higher education, she added, because older university professors learned English in the more closed communist system, did not live abroad and are not as proficient in English as their younger students, who’ve come of age since 1992, when the country began moving toward democracy and a free market.
Professors at the National University were eager to learn new strategies to engage students in English and other foreign language classes using the “communicative American style.” And Lems was impressed with the students themselves — their attitude, their knowledge of the outside world and even their sense of style. The influence of the Internet is palpable, she said.
Amid her busy teaching schedule, Lems had many great opportunities to get to know the country and its culture better. Mongolia has 3 million people, 50 percent of whom live in Ulaan Bataar. The rest are spread out over one of Asia’s largest land masses.
To share in the experience, Lems brought along her daughter, Karima, who was able to take her own side trip to the Gobi desert. Together they visited restaurants in Ulaan Bataar, the National Museum of Mongolia, a ger camp in the countryside, a massive Genghis Khan statue and museum outside the capital, and the wild horses in the Hustai National Park. Lems also extended her work outside the classroom to help develop a new English-teaching curriculum for young students at an orphanage in the capital. And she even helped judge a student talent show at the National University.
The trip gave Lems first-hand insight into a culture and way of life that for all the new influences is still very different than the U.S. Over centuries, the Mongolian people have developed a toughness out of necessity.
“I certainly respect them,” Lems said. “Survival there is not taken for granted. The natural resources are scarce. The weather’s not good. There’s no major body of water; they’re landlocked. So they have made their living through livestock, and they’ve made these wonderful products. Whatever they’ve been able to cultivate there, they’ve made a go of it. They’re gritty people.”
Along with this traditional stoicism, Lems also felt an air of optimistic outward-looking, particularly among the students she met — one that could bring further links with the U.S. and other countries beyond northern Asia.
“They’re really now just enjoying the fruits of international trade and travel,” Lems said. “So they’re very optimistic about that, and they love it. The young people feel like world citizens.”
Professor Lems recently presented at the Midwestern Regional Comparative and International Education Society Conference at Illinois State University on “Education in Mongolia: Trends and Constants.” If you’d like to learn more about her trip, please visit her blog.