Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Spring 2012 (March 20, 2012)

Far from home, a change in plans

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March 20, 2012
By Jennifer Brinkmeier'12

It is either very stupid or very brave for a 20-year-old girl to set out alone for a three-month research trip to the Mongolian countryside. I am still not sure which it is.

Last spring, I undertook such a trip and thought nothing of it, for that is what I believed anthropologists were supposed to do: head valiantly into the unknown in search of understanding distant cultures and peoples. So I set out to study the connection between modern Mongolian nomad herders and their trusty horses while staying with a Mongolian family in their rural ger (similar to a yurt). I would make brilliant observations that would lead to the most insightful senior thesis paper ever written. 

Mongolia - BrinkmeierI had no second thoughts when I took a vacation term from Beloit to pursue this academic quest. I was volunteering with an international volunteer placement agency, so I would not be completely alone. I had done all of the right preparatory research, bought warm, practical clothes, and I already knew how to work with farm animals. Nothing indicated that my trip to Mongolia would be anything but productive and enjoyable.

Unfortunately, I quickly learned that academic preparedness is not the only thing that matters, and original expectations can easily be changed upon arrival in a new country. My first night in the ger was surreal. The second night was miserable. By the third night, I was seriously planning my escape back home to Illinois.

I really hated being in Mongolia.

Yet, I really wanted to like Mongolians and their country. Looking for something that would combat my emotionally crippling homesickness and culture shock, I left the nomads to volunteer at an orphanage, and I left the orphanage to be a tourist. Nothing worked. My brilliant senior thesis was dead before it even had a chance to be drafted, and I returned home after only five weeks abroad.

There were a lot of personal emotions connected to the field experience that I believed I was not “supposed” to be feeling. Not only was I completely unable to grasp the language, I was personally uncomfortable with many Mongolian cultural norms. I spent a lot of time feeling alone and unhappy.

After coming home, I began to process what had happened. Despite what everyone was telling me, I felt like a complete failure. I obviously had so many personal shortcomings that my career as an anthropologist was doomed. In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, I met others who were thrilled to be in the country. They were having the time of their lives! So what was wrong with me?

It was not until I returned to Beloit for the fall semester that my advisor asked, “What if Mongolia was just a bad choice?” Instead of being a total failure, maybe completely exotic Mongolia was just not a good idea for my first time abroad.

There were multiple factors working against my happiness in Mongolia, not the least of which was my lack of experience in an urban environment. The personal values that made me most miserable abroad are those I most cherish possessing back home—including close communication with my family, the ability and personal space to initiate change in my life, and the opportunity to vocalize my opinions.

When students are preparing to go abroad, Beloit College wants to know if they are qualified to accomplish their academic goals. However, in failing to reach my academic goals in Mongolia, I actually learned quite a bit about myself. I had not failed. I had just learned things the hard way. And it was worth it.

Jennifer Brinkmeier’12 is from Mount Carroll, Ill. She presented “Cold, Homesick, and Tired of Mutton: What to Do When you Hate Being Abroad” at Beloit’s International Symposium last fall.

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