Undergrad Research: This Mongolian Life

The following post comes to us from Stephanie Kovanda, a recent graduate of the program in American Studies here at UT Austin. Since graduating from UT, Stephanie has been working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia. Many thanks to Stephanie for sharing her story with us!


March 16, 2011, 6:13 PM

I receive a text from a friend staying at my place in Cedar Park, Texas. “A package just arrived… something about Peace Corps?” This is the invitation I have been waiting for since I began the grueling application process nearly a year ago, an invitation I’ve been waiting for since I was seven years old. And of course, I have just started my 6-hour shift volunteering at a South by Southwest venue. The details of the next two years of my life will have to wait until the final band finishes their set and all amps, cords, and instruments are transported back to their designated vans.

March 17, 2011, 3:28 AM

I arrive back at the house. Surrounded by three friends, I open one neat little government-issued envelope containing my fate. My friend has the BlackBerry video camera recording. “It is with great pleasure that we invite you to begin training in… Mongolia???” I wish I can say my first thoughts are of intelligible details regarding Mongolian politics and culture or even a clue about the spoken language. No, my first thoughts are of BBQ and something about Chinggis Khaan making the Chinese so nervous that they built a long wall. A quick Google search and I realize that I will be going to a country that is rich, fascinating and about 100 degrees colder than my current location. One big question on my mind, though, is how exactly I will put my bachelors in American Studies to use in an Asian country where the livestock outnumber the human population ten to one.


December 2, 2012, 4:37 PM

I write to you from the Gobi Desert region of Dundgobi Province, Mongolia. I literally live in “Outer Mongolia.” This country has some of the most diverse and rich nature and culture I’ve seen, both of which have been beautifully preserved throughout the centuries. I’ve even acquired a taste for airag, Mongolia’s traditional beverage of fermented mare’s milk.

Since taking Dr. Hoelscher’s “Intro to American Studies” a few years back, I have a thing for sense of space. So allow me paint you a picture of my place right this moment. I live in a Mongolian ger. To me, it is a miniature circus tent and quite the intellectual one-room design for the Nomadic lifestyle that Mongolians have sustained for more than a thousand years. Every so often, I leave my laptop to adjust the central heating system, a coal stove located in the center of the ger. It’s a balmy five degrees Fahrenheit outside, up from last night’s subzero temperatures. My 12-year-old Mongolian host brother is taking a break from fetching water from the community well by sprawling out on my couch, absorbed in a game of “Zombie Highway” on his Blackberry-esque cell phone. His cell phone goes off. It blares out the Korean viral video sensation, “Gangnam Style.”

The dichotomy of technology and tradition never ceases to amaze and amuse here. I am connected to the internet in my ger but must run to the outhouse in between sending out an email and checking up on Pinterest. I cut up hunks of mutton for dinner with a meat cleaver while listening to This American Life. I digress.


December 3, 2012, 6:07 AM

The fire died out a few hours ago. I can see my breath inside the ger and I drag myself out from under the layers of a camel wool blanket to start another fire. Soon, I will head to the local secondary school where I work as a Peace Corps TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Volunteer.

Besides being aware of and analyzing the space around me, how did my work at the University of Texas’ Department of American Studies prepare me for This Mongolian Life? My students are fascinated with all that America entails, so obviously a degree in American Studies has been conducive for teaching on that subject. More importantly, though, American Studies has influenced the way in which I teach my Mongolian students. I draw from many disciplines as I teach the English language and challenge my students to do likewise as they learn it. Critical thinking is a newer concept within the school system here and something for which the American Studies department has provided great tools I now try to develop in this Mongolian generation.


Most importantly, though, I feel that I was provided with a comprehensive and challenging education in the American Studies department, a learning environment that fostered a wide range of skills I now pass on to the Mongolian students and teachers of Dundgobi’s Fourth Secondary School.

Over a year and a half since opening that Peace Corps invitation in Cedar Park, Texas, I can confidently answer a big question regarding my American Studies degree. This degree can take you anywhere, even all the way to Outer Mongolia!

One comment on “Undergrad Research: This Mongolian Life

  1. […] is its expansive reach: our faculty and students live and work in all corners of the globe, whether volunteering in the Peace Corps or presenting innovative research and projects in far-flung […]

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