Each summer, Stanford students carry the spirit of public service to foreign nations with the hope of making a difference. Each traveler craves to have an impact, ignoring the ramifications of their impending departure on their project’s viability. I spent my summer working in Mongolia, ostensibly making a difference by researching the mining industry.
In hindsight, any difference my work made evaporated when I left the country. Only after planning the Mongolian Young Leaders Program nine months later could I say that I had truly contributed to the country’s development. For the first time, I truly valued Mongolian youth as peers and collaborators.
Mongolia conjures up images of Genghis Khan, barbecue, and—for the college crowd—an infamous South Park episode. With that minimal knowledge, I signed up for a summer in the country through the Overseas Studies Asia Internships Program. Two other Stanford students joined me in my work as a researcher and SAT instructor at the Mongolian-American Scientific Research Center.
My primary task was to research the Mongolian mining industry and produce recommendations to guide its future development. Under the guidance and mentorship of Prof. Undraa Agvaanluvsan, a co-founder of the Research Center and a visiting scholar at the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies, we published reports on mining, uranium, and water issues. We then shared our conclusions in research seminars open to the public, hoping one of the attendees would take up our recommendations.
In spite of the veneer of success, I felt a gnawing emptiness as I flew out of Genghis Khan International Airport. My recommendations felt like a vain attempt to prop up imported optimism in a land where the future was not going to mirror my reports. Like the clogged traffic on Ulaanbaatar’s Soviet boulevards, the water flow in its creaky neighborhood pipes, and its stumbling morning drunks, these policies would go nowhere. I had developed a vision for Mongolia, but I felt powerless to bring it to fruition.
Several months after my departure from Mongolia, I planned a short, two-day program that—to my great surprise—reversed my entire perspective on international development. Thirteen young Mongolians studying in the United States came to Stanford for a Young Leaders Program focused on their country’s social issues and designed to develop their leadership potential. After taking part in their debates and discussions, I realized that during my entire time in Mongolia, I had focused on meeting with higher-ups in NGOs and government while ignoring the opportunity to work with the nation’s future leaders.
The program’s organizing committee, composed of the summer interns and Mongolians at Stanford, had a vision for how the country should develop sustainably. The agenda consisted of meetings and vigorous discussions with experts in the fields of entrepreneurship, the environment, international development, and the media.
As soon as we left the first meeting of the program, the participants took true ownership of the event. Stanford Professor Scott Sagan highlighted Mongolia’s leadership potential in non-proliferation activities, causing the students to realize that their country, often regarded domestically as a pawn between superpowers, could play a notable role on the international stage. That realization reverberated throughout the program. The students began to assert that each of Mongolia’s challenges, from the smog blanketing the capital to the crushing poverty in the slums and countryside, provided an opportunity for them to apply their American college educations toward the improvement of their country.
As the program progressed, the students sketched an ideal for a land torn between its nomadic heritage and its bustling, mining-driven future. During a group session led by Amanda Crowell Itliong from the Haas Center for Public Service, the students worked together to draw a poster depicting their vision of a future Mongolia. Highlights of the vision included a child studying remotely in a countryside yurt with an internet-enabled laptop, the rehabilitation of mine sites, and modern agricultural industries.
Later that night, when I expected the participants to unwind and party, the group instead chose to craft and debate their next steps as alumni of the Mongolian Young Leaders Program. The students looked to address their country’s challenges by beginning to organize projects such as engaging youth through public service and developing a Mongolian-language version of the College Board website.
In the two days I spent with the Mongolian students at Stanford, I had a greater impact on Mongolia than I did over the course of my entire summer. The program empowered a group of Mongolian youth to use their skills and knowledge to fulfill our common vision. No report could do that.
Across our idyllic college campus, students reflecting on their experiences in developing nations range from the boisterous crowd of inspired volunteers to those overwhelmed or jaded from the immensity of poverty’s challenges. The international experience contributed deeply to my personal development, but the projects in which I engaged during my summer stint in Mongolia will likely have little, if any, long-term impact. For those of us interested in international development, this realization should lead us to take a step back and recognize the value of the communities with whom we’re working.
The students at the Young Leaders Program were passionate and driven towards change. Even while I’m taking midterms on the Farm, these students will be the ones pushing forward initiatives in their country. As I start organizing next year’s Young Leaders Program and future youth initiatives in Mongolia, I look forward to working with the Mongolian youth as true partners. Amazing visions for the world require more than just a few educated Americans.