Crimson Decisions

The cohort after mine just finished their COS conference, their last formal gathering as the M27s. They’ll be completely finished in three months. And when they come home, it will also be one year since I finished my service.

I did not hurry elsewhere or somewhere when I finished. Some of my friends went straight into graduate school programs, others traveled for a couple of weeks like me, and a few went back to their previous job/field. Some joined Peace Corps again, others joined AmeriCorps, one got a Fulbright research grant, and a couple of people stayed in Mongolia to work in Ulaanbaatar.

I considered all of these options for myself, especially extending my stay in Mongolia. I may go back one day – I know I’d love to – but I decided to come home for now. I chopped off my hair and used a good amount of my readjustment allowance to travel. I visited South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, and Hawaii. In September, I moved back home with my parents in Ohio. I worked part-time as a substitute teacher and tutor to make some money. I joined a fencing club and a Krav Maga gym. My boyfriend moved to Columbus to be close to me. I applied to graduate school. I had a quiet life and easy routine that was very pleasant.

And then in March, I had to make some big decisions.

I heard back from all my graduate schools. I recognize how very fortunate and privileged I am to have received admission and scholarships to all the programs I applied to – two in teaching, two in international education policy (IEP). While I love to teach, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to study at the Harvard Graduate School of Education or the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

I was very torn between the two IEP programs. Penn has a built-in internship component and less hurried curriculum; Harvard has a world-renowned reputation and a larger international cohort. Both are accelerated Ed. M programs and are run by outstanding faculty. In the end, it came down to money (cause it always does). When I heard back from Harvard’s financial aid office, I was more nervous opening that email than I was when I received the official acceptance email. I’m happy because in the end, both my logical and emotional selves were able to come to one decision: Harvard.


In March, I went to Washington D.C. to attend the RPCV Careers Conference and Job Fair. I knew I was going to grad school in the fall so I used the opportunity to just learn. I thought the conference was well-organized and very insightful. Nick Crain and Jody Hammer, our two dedicated RPCV Career Coaches, are fantastic at what they do. They pulled in experts from all over D.C. to speak with us and evaluate our resumes, elevator pitches, and networking skills.

During the week, I also carved out some time to see my former AmeriCorps VISTA supervisor and colleagues. After catching up, they asked if I might be interested in working with them as a contractor for a couple of months. Within a week after that meeting, they sent me a formal contract. Within two, I had packed two suitcases and moved back to D.C.

So that’s where I’m at right now. I am sitting in my living room “bedroom” in a friend’s high-rise right by the Pentagon. It’s kind of weird to see my life take on the same pre-Peace Corps routine again – same job, supervisor, commute, etc. I am grateful for the opportunity though, one that came about completely by chance and unexpectedly.

I also miraculously found off-campus housing near Cambridge and a summer subletter, too! I’ve finalized plans with my family for our reunion vacation to Olympic National Park in July. I mean, knock on wood, but life is pretty good.

The only thing I might have changed about this last year is that I wish I hadn’t traveled after COS-ing. I know, gasp! regret travel?! But I honestly spent way too much money visiting countries that are miserably hot in the dead of summer (Korea & Japan). Indonesia could have been better if my boyfriend and I hadn’t tried to see so much in such a short period of time. Hawaii was pure gold though. I don’t regret that trip. Anyways, a good portion of that money could have gone towards alleviating my anxiety about grad school debt. But what’s done is done. I can only plan for what’s coming next.

It’s been about three years since I started this blog. Thank you to all who stayed on with me and written to me; to feel like I wasn’t writing into the void helped me keep this blog alive for my entire service. I’m not sure what will happen to it now, perhaps it’ll be a place to talk about my experiences at Harvard. Or perhaps the blog will have to be archived, having run its original purpose. We’ll see, but in the meantime, expect change. Or silence. One of the two.

With love,



How I Felt Two Weeks Before The End

I wrote this post two weeks before I finished my service. It sat untouched on my desktop for six months and I wonder now if it’s still a post I’d like to share. It’s a little dark and a touch critical, but it’s honest, about as honest as I’m willing to go in this kind of public space. The only disclaimer I will make is that these are my opinions from the life I lived and the experiences I had. They do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government, Peace Corps, Mongolia, the Mongolian people, or other Peace Corps Volunteers. 


A few months before I came to Mongolia, I put together this blog because I wanted a place to process the upheaval that was about to take place. I wanted to capture the unique experience of living in Mongolia, of being a Peace Corps volunteer, and, because my chances were as good as any, try my luck at the annual Blog It Home contest. I’m proud that even though I didn’t post all that frequently, I kept at it for the entire two years. I have tried not to be too repetitive or negative; I have shared with you all the big moments of my 27-month service and then some.

But as my time in Mongolia winds down, I have to get something off my chest.

While I hope this blog has helped some of you process your decision to join Peace Corps or get ready to come to Mongolia, for me, the blog wasn’t everything I needed it to be. I wasn’t looking for an online diary where I could dump my feelings, but the pressure to “keep it cheery” inevitably expurgated many realities of my life, realities that made up more of my service as a whole than the however many posts about holidays and work successes.

As it stands, I’m a little regretful that I haven’t been more honest about what is going on over here. In addition to the feeling that nobody wants to hear about the bad stuff, there is also the notion that I could get over a hardship if I gave it more time. Maybe I just need to be a little more open, more flexible, more understanding or empathetic. As a person who is not naturally any of those things, as a person who came here because I needed to be more of those things, staying that wide open and flexible and empathetic for 27 months was tough.

There were parts about my service that utterly, irreparably affected me and other things that even after two years of full immersion, I have still not been able to get over.

For example, there is this business of stray dogs.

Earlier this spring, I was out running on the track with my site mate when we heard a distressed puppy yelping in the stands. We jogged over and found a small brown pupper unable to get himself down from the steep bleachers. He was about one or two months old. I picked him up and he immediately snuggled in my arms and purred (yes, purred) while I walked the rest of my lap.  When I tried to set him down, he’d come clamoring after us, trotting through the broken vodka bottles. I didn’t finish my workout that day. Instead, I walked laps with him purring and napping in my arms. At the end of our run, my site mate and I snuck him up to my no-pets apartment so I could give him a little water and food. We laid him down on my fuzzy North Face jacket and he promptly fell asleep.

I actually began to consider keeping the little guy. I kept him in a cardboard box next to my bed for the night. I gave him a warm rinse in my bathtub and rubbed him dry with a towel; he devoured the boiled eggs and sausages I gave him. He stayed quiet and occupied in his box all night and in the morning, ventured cautiously around my apartment. But I knew I couldn’t keep him. I didn’t know how big he’d grow, what kind of temperament he’d have, how I could fit him into a future I didn’t even know for myself. I thought, maybe I could keep him for a week? Or until he’s big enough to stand up to the bigger dogs and scavenge for his own food?


But I knew that the longer I “fostered” the puppy, the more attached I’d become and the harder it would be to let him go. So that next day, I took him back to the stadium.

As we were walking there, I set him on the ground so he could do his business and follow after me, but a bigger dog started approaching us. The puppy started screaming, running around in frantic circles, then found me again to sit on my feet, trembling. He didn’t stop screaming until the dog stopped approaching. The bigger dog stood there, matted fur and an indifferent but intense gaze, looking at the small puppy.

I stood paralyzed with fear by the realization that this puppy was probably not going to make it in this literal dog-eat-dog world.

After a few minutes, the dog walked off and I didn’t move until it was completely out of sight. I picked up the little guy and almost turned back. My emotions were on fire. How could I abandon him, especially after witnessing something like that?! He’s going to die if I don’t take care of him. Where is his mother? Where are his siblings? Leaving him here felt like I was fating him to a grisly death.

But the hard truth was undeniable: in this animal world, the strong prevailed, the weak perished. If this puppy didn’t learn how to fend for itself, to feed itself, to survive, it wasn’t ever going to be able to do so. And unless I was willing to make a commitment to bring him back to the U.S. and take care of him for the rest of its life, I had to let him go. Today.

I walked us to the stadium and set him down with some food. He ate it up and then proceeded to wander around, licking dried vomit from the pavement or putting whatever he found in his mouth to see if it was edible. I sat on the bleachers for a good half hour contemplating the consequences of my decision. I had to force myself away. Wipe away the tears. Get on your feet. Turn towards the gate and walk away.

It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. Thankfully, he didn’t follow.

I don’t know what has happened to my puppy, but I still get overwhelmed with stress whenever I hear a dog crying. I keep my head down as I walk around town, terrified I’ll see the carcass of a dead puppy.  I didn’t go back to the stadium for months after that day.

For weeks afterwards, I was so angry. At first, I directed my anger toward Mongolia. I was angry that this country wasn’t a more humane place for dogs. I was angry that the dogs here were forced to prey on puppies to survive.  I was angry at all the owners who tied up their guard dogs and didn’t understand why they were so vicious, angry at the clueless families who kept two-week-old puppies outside in the bitter February winter. I was especially pissed at the dog culler who came to my boyfriend’s khashaa and shot a stray puppy we named Pillow right in front of him with NO warning. It felt like I was being subjected to living in a cruel and barbaric country.

But eventually, I came to realize that my anger was less about Mongolia and more about having to confront this gruesome and merciless reality in its ugly face. It was about me having been blissfully ignorant to the same ugliness in my own home country. It was about getting attached to a dog that was not a pet and stupidly setting myself up for a rude awakening.

These are the things I’ve had to come to accept during my time here.

Another struggle that has been prominent throughout my service is socializing.


I now recognize how hard it is for me to enjoy being out. Other PCVs have said this before too, but out of necessity, being a PCV can really bring out your introversion. As someone without a family here or a vibrant social life, I have incredible amounts of free time with nothing to do or no one to help me fill it.

The few months after my first site mate left Mongolia, I couldn’t stand how bored I was. No matter how many people I called or baked or watched movies, the days slogged by. I went from having a constant companion to just having myself.

Time slowed to unbearable.

To stay sane, I had to adapt to the monotony of reading and watching shows all day. I had to start seeing it as my refuge, not my prison.

However, as a unintended consequence, I began to not appreciate when other social activities cut into my time. I hardly ever wanted to be out. I didn’t want to spend a night karaoking with out-of-town foreigners. I didn’t want to meet a group of Koreans in town volunteering for two weeks. I didn’t want to socialize just for the sake of having the opportunity to do so. I especially didn’t want to confront the drinking norms that seemed to ruin the potential of any social activity.

I wanted to eat at home, sleep at home, and spend only a couple of hours a week with other humans. To be honest, I don’t know why I’m writing this in past tense. I definitely still feel this way.

And finally, there is the institution of Peace Corps itself.

I believe in the work and mission of Peace Corps and it’s right up there with NGOs and embassies in fostering positive relationships between countries. I think Peace Corps Volunteers are good people with good intentions and we do what we can in the circumstances that we are given.

But I have found that dealing with the bureaucracy of a government agency is far from simple.

It could very easily be my naiveté about the working world, but I am one of those people who came in with an ingenuous trust in the organization. I believed that PC had volunteers’ best interests at heart and that they knew we had real and immediate needs in the field. I believed that when a decision had to be made, it would always be made in the interest of the volunteer.

While each country post is different and handles problems with varying degrees of aplomb, the constraints of bureaucracy can put volunteers in unsettling positions. In any other federal job, if you’re waiting for a budget to be approved or an order to be confirmed, you can go about your day in your cube with a coffee and donut. You can go home to your family or friends, take a shower, or order some dinner.

But as volunteers, especially those of us in austere conditions, waiting around for a decision is not as simple as watching some TV and anxiously checking our emails.  It could mean another subzero night in a felt tent without heat. A sleepless week wondering if another drunk is going to try to pry open your door. The last of your allowance on bottled water because your well-water makes you sick.

Waiting does not become a test of our patience, it becomes a risk to our mental and physical well-being.

While volunteers sign up knowing and even welcoming the hardship and isolation that is to come, many aren’t prepared for the amount of autonomy they will have to concede. Again, maybe it’s all part of the institution of work, but as a 24/7 representative of the U.S. Government, you might very well reach a point where you have to choose yourself. That means that even though there are viable solutions where all parties can be satisfied, that action is out of your hands. Your only choice is to stay and survive, or quit. It is no wonder that volunteers can sometimes feel powerless and disillusioned about their situation.


I don’t mean to negate all I’ve written and said before about my service with this one post. I just want to show that life in Peace Corps is the same as life anywhere else. My decision to join and move here was not to run away from responsibilities or delay life in the “real world.” I still had to face some hard truths about myself, about the people I lived and worked with, and the world I was in. I still had to grow and be hurt and be lonely.

And this is my post to validate that. Thanks for reading.

When You Have Questions

If you were to ever meet me (or if you already have), one of the first things you might notice is that I have a lot of questions. And then you’d probably get annoyed because I am terrible at holding in those questions. Whether it was on my cohort’s Facebook group or in training sessions with Peace Corps staff, you could always count on me to raise my hand at least once … or thrice.

But if you have got a question, the door is wide open! I love to answer questions as equally as I love to ask them. Since last year’s Blog It Home competition, I’ve started getting more emails from readers and it’s been an absolute delight. So even though I’m an RPCV, I hope I can still offer you some advice or allay your concerns. Don’t hesitate to write if you’ve got something on your mind.

Quick note though: remember that my experience isn’t representative of all Peace Corps Mongolia and more importantly, what it might be like for you. It’s a phrase you’ll hear a lot as a candidate and trainee, but “It really depends on your site/country.

If you’re super nervous about what’s to come, the best thing you can do for yourself is to have no expectations. You might love it, hate it, or have a complicated love/hate relationship like many of us do. Be open to it all. And also know that you will learn so much during your Pre-Service Training. You will have plenty of chances to talk to staff and volunteers before swearing-in as a volunteer yourself.

For future Mongolia volunteers, here are six questions I bet you’re curious about:

How cold does Mongolia get?

How cold does Mongolia actually get?

Yes, winter in Mongolia is cold but not so much that it should make or break your decision to join. You will adapt quickly and learn how to dress properly. Also, winter in Mongolia is long but it’s not depressing – you will still see plenty of sunshine. 

If you’re worried about what winter gear to bring, know that you will be able to find good-quality cashmere, wool, felt, and fur products in country. My personal favorites were yak/camel wool socks ($5), camel wool leggings ($20-40), and cashmere blend sweaters ($100-200). I also bought my Made-in-China winter coat (pictured above) in Ulaanbaatar in early November for about $90. It’s the best winter coat I’ve ever owned. I even brought it back to Ohio with me.

Some apparel I brought from home: Smartwool underlayers, my alpaca fur hat, GAP scarves, knee-high socks, wind-proof pants, LL Bean waterproof boots.


Mongolian style barbeque

Have you found that you gained weight due to your new diet? Mongolian food consists of a lot dairy, how has that affected you? Do you have clean drinking water?

I ate fairly well at site but I also made a huge effort to have a fully stocked kitchen. I also learned how to cook new dishes and had my parents send stuff that I couldn’t find.  Nowadays though, Mongolia is catching up quickly. You’ll be able to find just about everything in Ulaanbaatar. By the time I left, the stores at my site were stocking mozzarella, broccoli, ginger, western cereals, and Nutella on the regular. Of course the choice isn’t as great as in America but it’s not so bad that you have to live on rice and potatoes for two years. The smaller sites usually don’t have stuff beyond basic pantry items, but these soum volunteers travel to their provincial capital to stock up.

I gained a little weight during my two years but I was more sad about muscle loss. Having access to a nearby gym or being able to run outside without being harassed by other humans or stray dogs is a luxury that I had never thought about until Mongolia. One thing I’m glad I brought was downloaded yoga videos. Check out if you’re interested.

And yes, I had a lot of dairy during my service. I mostly ate yogurt and milk in my home and would only have the Mongolian dairy products when I visit Mongolian friends or families (or during Pre Service Training when I was living with a host family).

Finally, Peace Corps issues water jugs that filters water from the well, river or tap depending on your living situation.


What is the time line for Peace Corps Mongolia? Do you know which provinces volunteers go to and when they go to them?

If you’re interested in serving in Mongolia, I recommend looking for the application on in summer or early fall. At the time of writing, there is only one cohort per year in Education or Health and they leave in late May/early June.

Pre-Service Training (PST) will take place throughout the summer. This is the time to decide whether Peace Corps is right for you. Once you swear-in as a volunteer in August, your community members will have been notified and will be looking forward to your arrival. So take PST seriously and think hard about whether you can and want to commit to the next two years.

In terms of permanent placement, you could end up anywhere in Mongolia. You could be placed in a big city, a provincial capital or small village. These are preferences you should share during your PST interviews. Once you get to site, you’ll have about 3-6 site mates who might be anywhere from a 10-minute walk to 1-3 hours away by car. I had two site mates and two province mates both years.

In terms of language and culture, Mongolia is pretty uniform throughout. The only exception is a province called Bayan Olgii which is predominantly Kazakh and Kazakh-speaking. The volunteers in Bayan Olgii have to learn, work and live in Kazakh. Very few volunteers per cohort get sent to this province and that is entirely up to Peace Corps Mongolia staff. One thing to note is that Bayan Ulgii volunteers get very limited exposure to Kazakh culture and language before going out there; they just have to pick it up once they arrive. The reason for this is they don’t know they’re going to Bayan Olgii until site placements which happens just a few days before the end of PST. If you want to read more about serving in Bayan Olgii, check out the excellent blog Learning to Think by M26 Renee Melton.

Horses in Mongolia

Did you know of any volunteers who were able to go horseback riding near their permanent sites?

Something to know about ridable horses in Mongolia is that they’re just barely broken. They’re still pretty wild and the families that herd horses only have a few that can be ridden safely. The rest are used for dairy and meat. So it can be difficult to find a horse that can be ridden by a stranger without supervision and isn’t currently needed for herding responsibilities.

The times I rode in Mongolia were usually at tourist sites/camps and a handful of times in the countryside while visiting Mongolian families. Even then, the horse did what it wanted or someone was walking us on a lead. If you’re a countryside volunteer, you might have better luck. Another option is doing what my boyfriend always joked about, buying a meat horse and keeping it for equestrian purposes.

Pro packing tip: You’re required to ride with a helmet so if you want to take advantage of every opportunity, definitely bring your own riding/biking helmet!


Teaching English in Mongolian classroom

What is your best advice for teaching English in Mongolia? Should I bring my own resources?

Your challenge as a TEFL volunteer will be learning how to work with limited resources. While it’s great to have posters, flashcards and supplies, you’ll quickly realize that once these wear out, there is no way for you to replace it in country. Workbooks are great in theory but can be hard to execute because mass printing is not a thing. Even printing for tests or exams can be a headache. I think the best thing you can bring is an idea book for teaching ESL, one that has activities that are low-resource and low-tech. Everything else you can find in country or make yourself.


Peace Corps project management and development seminar

Is there anything you would have wanted to know before applying to Peace Corps Mongolia? Would you do it again? ​

I don’t regret my decision to join Peace Corps at all. In fact, I’m very, very happy I did it. I got a lot out of my experience both professionally and personally.

Professionally, I think Peace Corps is a great option for people interested in working or living abroad. PC offers the support and structure you need to cope with your first time immersed in a new culture. Some people adjust pretty quickly though and can feel restrained by all the rules of Peace Corps; others find it reassuring to know that someone has got their back if things go badly.

I don’t know if there is anything I would have wanted to know before joining Peace Corps Mongolia. I’ll reiterate that the most productive thing you can do for yourself is to accept and be open to anything and everything. Don’t “want” things to happen or not happen and let go of the idea that your way is the only way.

While I probably wouldn’t do Peace Corps a second time, I am open to Peace Corps Response which offers shorter and more specific assignments around the world. I also plan to live abroad again either in teaching or education development. These are ideas that I wouldn’t be entertaining if it weren’t for my time in Peace Corps. And for that, I’m grateful because it feels like two short years later, the whole world has opened up to me.

The Happy Place



At what point does the hassle of getting somewhere make it not even worth trying to get there at all?

In Mongolia, most destinations are worth the effort because it’s the only way to see what the country has to offer. The country is vast, nearly the size of Alaska, and while flying is an option for about half the country’s provincial centers, it almost never gets you to the natural wonders and attractions. So unless you have a private helicopter, there is simply no other way around the long and nauseating hours on buses, cars or horseback. It’s what makes visiting Mongolia so unique but by that same virtue, a very challenging destination for some.


I personally have no idea how I made it in this country given my propensity to motion sickness and impatience for all things. I remember during Pre-Service Training, one of the trainers was telling us that her site was eight hours from the capital city and that she’d clocked in eight of these one-way trips in just a couple of months. Four round trips. 64 hours!? Naive trainee that I was, I gawked and couldn’t believe it.

How in the world do you get through those bus rides? I asked.

Well, for one, my Kindle. But also, you learn to go to your happy place.


The happy place. I thought it was all myth and legend until the last half of my service. I was making trips to Ulaanbaatar every 4-6 weeks for work, R&R, or holiday. While I’m usually a pretty good sleeper on long rides, if enough hours go by, not even sleep can save me. In those moments, it’s all about the happy place.

The happy place is a sort of meditative state. You close your eyes and try to stop thinking or alternatively, think so much you forget where you are. Aided with ear plugs, a neck pillow and a scarf around your eyes, the happy place is a place of magic. It got me through hot and sticky bus rides during the summer, a never-ending loop of Mongolian folk songs blaring through the speakers, crying babies, a dead phone, and unpleasant off-roading.

So with a solid year of happy place practice, I figured I’d be okay on a two week trip to the Gobi desert and Khuvsgul Lake this past summer.

I’d be in a moving vehicle for nine out of the fourteen days.


The trip began with the standard ride from my site to Ulaanbaatar, the main and arguably the only transit hub of the country. (Total drive time: 8 hours)

After a few R&R days in Ulaanbaatar, we took a comfortable and air-conditioned bus ride to the southernmost province of Mongolia. (10 hours)

The next day, we met our private driver and his van at 8AM to start a 3 day/2 night itinerary visiting all the major sights in the Gobi desert. We started with some canyons and hikes that were all about an hour or two apart. In the afternoon, our driver drove towards the horizon and somehow, brought us to correct ger camp in front of the Singing Dunes. (I’d say total drive time was about 8 hours)


On day two, we drove to a watering hole, a natural spring and the dunes. (2 hours)


One the way back to Dalanzadgad, we stopped by the Flaming Cliffs and also saw some ancient stone carvings. (7.5)


Back on the bus for the ride to Ulaanbaatar (10 hours)

Gobi trip: 45.5 hours of drive time for the first seven days


The Gobi, while beautiful, zapped the last reserves I had for tolerating long and bumpy rides. Thankfully, traveling up to Huvsgul Lake wasn’t nearly as arduous as going to the Gobi, thanks to my parents and their generous moolah.

The day I returned from the Gobi desert, my parents landed in Mongolia and I met them at the hotel. We spent two nights in UB seeing some sights and enjoying the food. I told my parents to load up on fruits and vegetables because come tomorrow, it would be meat and carbs for days.

The bus ride to Huvsgul aimag center in the very north of the country is an overnight 14-hour trip. Neither my parents nor I were ready for that so we flew on one of the two domestic airlines, Hunnu Air. It was comfortable, quick and offered great views of the countryside. We landed in Murun and met with my friend, Lhama, who had arranged for her friend to drive us to the lake in his car. I should have known better that it wouldn’t be a quick and painless ride on paved road all the way to our ger camp. Don’t believe the guide books, people! From Khatgal to the ger camp strip, it’s Grade-A Unpaved Mongolian Rocky Road.


The lake itself was very beautiful. Huvsgul Lake is a massive, crystal blue lake surrounded by balding mountains and evergreen forests. Mongolians even refer to it as the Ocean. My parents and I spent our days lounging in the ger or riding horses (I finally learned how to control the horse by myself!!! and even felt comfortable enough to chou the horse to a gallop). The nights were cool enough to justify a stove fire and we ate Mongolian food every meal. My mom would only eat the khushuur but my dad liked it all. Also, it was later confirmed to me that the incredibly salty tsuivan we had for dinner once is not uncommon in Huvsgul province and unfortunately, I was not a fan.


The return to UB was the same as the way we came – two hour ride in a tiny car on unpaved and paved road, 1.5 hour flight, 30 minute taxi ride to the hotel.

Huvsgul trip: 8 hours of drive/fly time for the last seven days. Not too bad given that it could’ve been 32 hours. 

I enjoyed showing my parents the country and culture I’ve lived in for the last two years. And being able to show off my Mongolian and spend a week operating in three languages was a highlight as well – I felt very smart.



In summary, Mongolia is a destination that will burn through your perseverance before your wallet. You’ll have to put in a lot of tiring hours and a vomit or two, but in exchange, you will get to enjoy the sights without having to fight off swarms of other tourists. You’ll see some incredible vistas of the natural world; you will look out into the horizon and realize you’re the only human as far as the eye can see. So here’s my advice for traveling in Mongolia: bring good companions, pack anti-sickness meds, and start building that door to your happy place.


Photo credits: Kyra Lyndstrom, Caleb LaRue, Sally LaRue, Lexa Perrian, and me

More photos:

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Three June 7ths

I spent three birthdays in Mongolia. I flew to staging as a 24-year-old and flew back as a 27-year-old. I know I lived my mid-twenties well, but it still feels like they somehow disappeared. How did I become 27 so quickly?

* * *

My first birthday in Mongolia was uneventful because I’d only been in country for a week. My cohort didn’t really knew who I was yet and it was the day after we’d been introduced to our host families. A few people managed to call and wish me a happy birthday and my host family made me Mongolian-style kimbap and gave me a bar of chocolate. It was simple but endearing.



* * *

I was in a similar situation the following year. I was at another site for training and the new group had just arrived. My boyfriend reached out to the only trainee he recognized and asked if she could organize a little something. The group, despite having only known me for a couple of days, were thoughtful enough to chip in on some fruit, chocolate and a cheery song. Later that evening, my colleagues made me birthday kimbap and chicken.



* * *

Then, without expecting too much, my 27th birthday became one of my favorite memories. School responsibilities had dwindled, the weather was warm and sunny, and all my friends were still in town. You could see miles and miles across the green pastures so I organized a picnic potluck by the river. We found a nice clean spot with a good view of the mountains and nomadic goats. Perrin brought sangria and cupcakes. Deegi brought a Korean pork/yak dish I taught her how to make. Anna brought garlic bread and I baked pumpkin bread. We had veggies, hyam (salami), fruit and candy. It was a mishmash of foods but it was a delicious spread.

After first lunch, we took naps in the car shade. We laid by the river and giggled like school girls. We collected dried dung to make a smoky insect repellent fire. We took photos, danced, and stalked untamed horses. We went for second lunch. By sunset, we’d been outside for hours. We didn’t have our cellphones to distract us and we didn’t have any vodka to make it hazy. We just had one another’s lovely, unfiltered, easy company.




She’s so happy with her dung collection 🙂



* * *


An Idea for an Idea: TEDxArvaikheer

On May 14 at around 5 o’clock, I walked out of my local children’s center feeling like one of the cotton ball clouds in the sky. We’d just torn down the set, stacked up the chairs and closed the doors on the biggest and last of my projects as a Peace Corps Volunteer. For all intents and purposes, I was done with my two year service.


TEDxArvaikheer was a nearly year in the making. I’d first gotten the idea at my Mid-Service Training in August when a fellow volunteer talked about her aimag’s fourth annual TEDx event. While TEDx is pretty well-known in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, it was hard to believe that her countryside community had gotten on board and had successfully hosted their own event year after year. I don’t mean to imply that the people in her community were incapable of this; I just mean to point out that in a place that is not familiar with the concept of TED, how do you explain it?

In my experience, I had a really hard time selling the idea of TEDx to my counterparts, all of whom had never heard of it before.

“TEDx is like a lecture series,” I’d say, “but it’s not academic. It’s not boring because you don’t teach. But you can teach … through your ideas. You persuade someone of your idea. It’s all about ideas.”

At this point, people would nod politely and change the subject. I admit I was terrible at giving a good definition, but it was impossible to elucidate the purpose of TED without first showing a TED talk. Moreover, the most confounding part about TED talks for most people was that a speaker could do anything – a poem, a performance, a presentation – but at its core, s/he had be sharing a new and original idea.

I’d read enough essays from my students to know that this concept would be difficult to put to practice. Nearly every essay I’d ever read ended with “Be happy and successful!” or during Write On!, while the creativity was there, the commitment to that creativity was tenuous. It felt like ninety percent of the highly entertaining and fantastical stories ended with “…and then I woke up. It was all a dream.”

So in April, I organized what I called a TEDx Writers’ Workshop for the sole purpose of helping students find their TED-worthy idea. I divided the 33 participants into teams of eleven, each facilitated and led by a Peace Corps volunteer and a Mongolian English teacher. Over the course of three days, I taught the basics of public speaking, speech development and finding an idea while the facilitators guided and gave feedback to their group during the daily breakout sessions.

The pace was unforgiving; using a reflection worksheet and numerous one-on-one consultations, students had to figure out their new, original and interesting idea within a day and a half. They wrote their speeches in Mongolian or English and on the third day, auditioned for one of the six coveted TEDx speaker slots.

Many of the participants were also members of my community ‘Chatty Bunch’ club which I started in October to train up some public speakers for TEDx. We met for three hours every 2-3 weeks and spent the first semester just focused on acting. We covered voice control and body language; we had our own “Whose Line Is It Anyway” performances and in the spring, right before the Writers’ Workshop, finally started writing and presenting speeches.

I mention all of this to say that most of the students at the workshop were proficient enough in public speaking and also knew enough about essay writing that they could do it.

But again and again, the facilitators and I had to send them back to the drawing board for better examples and more specific ideas. We learned quickly that Mongolians are used to basing their opinions on general sweeping axioms like “Work hard and you will succeed” and “You’re beautiful just the way you are.” Honing in on the whys and how comes of their opinions often left students frustrated and diffident. In the words of one of the Mongolian facilitators, Lhama:

The students chose big topics including life-related proverbs, metaphors etc. They were not familiar with simple ones, i.e. their past etc. In Mongolia we are accustomed to using big topics, very big things to express our idea in a formal presentation. So TEDx is 100% different from Mongolian-type presentations. It is a way to express an idea in a very simple and easy way to others in comfortable ways, relating to your past life.

If after the workshop students didn’t completely get it, we at least challenged them to think critically about their beliefs and draw connections between specific life events and their personal scruples.

In the end, after a spectacular round of auditions, we chose our six student speakers – four girls and two boys – and that following weekend, took them to Ulaanbaatar to attend TEDxUEIS at the Elite International School.

The six weeks leading up to TEDxArvaikheer, I met with each speaker every week and battered them with more “why’s” and “be more specific, please” till they probably wanted to slide off their chairs like a noodle and disappear under the table. I am so proud of them though. On the day, each of them presented their speeches with poise and eloquence and left the room reverberating with applause. I hope so much that their ideas resonated with each of their peers in the audience.

DSCF9108Credit for the success of TEDxArvaikheer is also due to the ten wonderful student organizers who went above and beyond with their duties. They printed T-shirts where every organizer was one letter in ‘TEDxArvaikheer’ so that you could only make sense of our shirts when we stood together as a team. They hand-made and cut all the stage decorations (because online shipping isn’t a thing here) and our amazing designer/photographer created the hugely impressive banner that hung in lobby. They sold all our tickets in less than a week. They organized the program and hosted the event. They were the lights and sound and stage. I seriously couldn’t be more impressed with their creativity and work ethic.

Thank you also to my six TEDx Writers’ Workshop facilitators – Perrin, Phoebe, Ian, Lhamaa, Uuganaa and Saikhnaa. You made all three days of the workshop seem like a breeze; I can’t express how grateful I am that you helped make this possible.

Special gratitude to World Vision for sponsoring our lunches during the workshop and getting us to Ulaanbaatar for TEDxUEIS.

To Bookbridge for your enthusiastic support and sending Lhamaa all the way from Huvsgul to be a part of the workshop.

To our private donors – Uranchimeg, Undelgur, Munkhtuya and Save the Children – for donating t-shirts, printing, lanyards and gifts.

Thank you Anna Buchanon for always being in the right place at the right time to capture such perfect moments.

And to my school, 2nd School, and the Children’s Center for donating their spaces to the cause.


And finally, to my two co-organizers, Uuganaa and Saikhnaa: Thank you. You both are such motivated, hard-working, sharp, zealous and funny women. Everyone who knows you two knows that I won the Peace Corps lottery of counterparts and there simply aren’t enough adjectives to describe how much I have enjoyed working with you these two years. From making money fall like rain (through in-kind donations and sponsorship) to translating everything that came out of my mouth, you two are my super heroines. You will always be a very special part of my time in Mongolia and I am so utterly happy that we could make these memories together.


What a wonderful two years it’s been.

The Big Question: What’s Next?

I just got back from my last and final Peace Corps conference a few weeks ago. Before I even started my service, I had always thought of Close of Service (COS) conference as the ultimate finish line. The conference by no means mark the last day of my service (still twelve weeks away), but it’s the ceremonial end to an incredible challenge. In my case, shaking my Country Director’s hand and receiving my certificate of completion was the moment I achieved a very personal life goal.


Between the Country Director Gene Nixon and Director of Programming and Training Wendy Slee



Came in with 74, leaving with 54. We made it!

The three months after COS conference is an awkward yet necessary period. Even though I still have a month of school left, my motivation has plummeted and my mind is somewhere else. I have bought my flight out of Mongolia and I’m currently planning my six week Asia tour: Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia. I have one last project to see to the end – TEDxArvaikheer – and then school is out and I’m off on a two week vacation around Mongolia. In July, I’ll be selling and giving away my things, saying goodbye to friends and teachers who aren’t in the countryside and taking the bus out of Arvaikheer for the very. last. time.

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Intellectually, I know I won’t be able to seamlessly insert myself back into the life I had before Peace Corps. Yet the allure to go back to the good old days is too sweet; it clouds my ability to see Mongolia as a place that I will miss and cherish. For every one thing I will miss, there is also a long, tiresome list of grievances that I won’t miss. I suppose this would happen no matter where you are especially if it’s not your culture and/or place of comfort. But I don’t regret having joined Peace Corps or coming out here for two years. It’s a trite thing to say, but this experience really did make me grow and become more aware of the kind of person I am.


Photo by Anna Buchanon

Another way my two years has paid off is that I figured out what I want to do with my life after this; I discovered a career path that I didn’t know was a real thing until I was here. It’s called ‘Learning and Development.’

Last year, the tune was a little different. I wrote a blog post about how I thought teaching was my calling and I suppose in some ways it still is. Before, I was more attracted to the international teaching route and I started narrowing down which Masters of Education programs I wanted to apply to this fall. Yet the whole time, I was grappling with my anxieties about being in a classroom and my fondness for teaching. And then, I discovered training.



Phonics lessons

It started with the M27 PST where I was a technical trainer for five weeks. Then my first two quarters at school, I was intensely focused on helping my teachers improve their methodology by designing more cohesive lesson plans without the book. At the end of January, I was invited to present a few sessions at an international NGO conference. I was also attending a bunch of Peace Corps trainings as a trainee which was not as much fun, but I was learning how to run efficient and successful trainings and workshops.

Teaching is rewarding but I can’t see myself being “on” day-in and day-out. I also don’t like being limited to working in a classroom. And I’ve talked about this before, but the teacher life is not very appealing to me, especially in America. I wouldn’t even want to do it for a couple of years before I went abroad to an international school.

Instead, I like that as a trainer, I would only have to be “on” for short and intense periods of time between weeks or months of designing and planning in a collaborative office environment. Additionally, Learning & Development is under the Human Resources umbrella so it is a facet of all industries in corporate, nonprofit/NGO, education, government or even start-ups. The job can be found all over the world, too, so I can fulfill my dream of living the expat life one day. I could settle in the big, expensive cities of the world or opt for a more simpler life in a smaller city. Furthermore, I can try my hand at instructional or curriculum design if I’m hankering for a more creative touch. What makes me happiest about this career path is that I get to be both a teacher and business or development professional.

Every job, internship, and volunteer service I ever took contributed to nearly a decade of soul-searching to find this answer. Yes, I had to do more work than someone who graduated with a more specialized degree, but now I feel secure and fulfilled knowing what it took me to get here. As an added bonus, I got to do so much more than this one future job, for example, my entire Peace Corps experience. It was a stressful 20s, but I wouldn’t have wanted it to happen any other way.


Winner’s line for Write On! Arvaikheer 2017 (Photo by Anna Buchanon)


For RPCVs: Is It Worth Purchasing the 2nd and 3rd Month of IMG Health Benefits?

In about three months, I am going to be a low income, not under parents plan, minimal savings, jobless fellow who will have to rely heavily on for my health insurance. Peace Corps is offering a “health benefits plan” through IMG where they will cover us the first month as official Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV) and then we can opt to pay for a 2nd and 3rd month of coverage.

Before I joined Peace Corps, I spent a year as an AmeriCorps volunteer that also provided a “health benefits plan” as part of my service. The plan was serviced by the same company Peace Corps was using right before the switch and so I imagine the plan and coverage was the same or at least similar.

My experience with the AmeriCorps/Seven Corners “health benefits plan” was a nightmare. It was my first time navigating the dark underworld of insurance policies and limits and I had many frustrating calls with insurance agents that led to a few moments of angry hot tears. I just couldn’t wrap my head around why I couldn’t go see a doctor in my neighborhood. Under my parent’s insurance plan in Ohio, I spent my entire life going to the same doctor, dentist and optometrist and never had to pay when I left. As an AmeriCorps volunteer in D.C., I was scrambling to find doctors who could fill out my Peace Corps medical paperwork and also took my insurance but I wasn’t really sure how to answer any questions about my insurance and then the bill would come out and I didn’t know what to do with it – it was all just a confusing mess. In the end, I bitterly paid about $1,000 out-of-pocket.

And to be fair, that’s exactly how much I should have paid under the Seven Corners plan. I know that now but at the time, I felt so cheated.

The RPCV health benefits plan – that I’m going to call IMG for short – was rolled out last week. The premium is $233 per volunteer a month with a $250 deductible in-network/$500 for out of network. The max out-of-pocket costs is $1,000. (Sidenote: I finally know what all this means!)

At first, I thought back to my AmeriCorps days and immediately wrote this plan off as -NOT HAPPENING. But I’ve spent the better part of tonight perusing and the options there aren’t that much better.

First off, to make VERY clear, the IMG plan does not meet the current Affordable Care Act minimum requirements so it can’t rightly be called insurance. And for every month you’re not covered by qualified insurance, you have to pay a $50 penalty. That’s a $150 penalty at tax time for being on the IMG plan for three months after service.

However, the first two months you’re not covered is forgiven. So in reality, you will only have to pay a one month penalty on top of the $233/month premium you are paying for the plan. If you’re still under your parents plan when you get home then you don’t have to worry about this penalty at all.

So why would anyone pay for that third month of coverage?

Like I mentioned before, I looked into some insurance plans on for Ohio tonight and found that while the premiums are the same (about $200-240/month), the deductibles, coinsurance and out-of-pocket maxes are vastly different. For example, the most you’ll ever have to pay out of pocket on the IMG plan is $1,000. On plans, that number is estimated to be in the $6-7,000 range. That means you have to pay $6-7,000 out of pocket first before your insurance pays a cent! (One might be eligible for Medicaid through their state but I couldn’t find any hard numbers on that).

I was also concerned about why the IMG plan didn’t meet minimum ACA requirements. Were they skimping on a really important benefit that would later screw us over? Or was the IMG plan so bare bones that it was basically useless beyond a bro-I’m-about-to-die scenario?

After reading the Essential Health Benefits, I realized that there was a lot on the list that I didn’t need coverage for my immediate future. For example: Pregnancy, maternity, and newborn care; Mental health and substance use disorder services; Rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices; Preventive and wellness services; and pediatric services.

These are definitely health benefits that I need in my life long-term but for three months, I think I will be okay. Instead, right now I need good emergency and urgent care, in-patient stay and some prescription med coverage. I especially need low co-payments and deductibles. I think the IMG plan is exactly what I can both afford and need in terms of coverage which is why I’m planning to buy at least the 2nd month. I’m going to sit a bit longer on whether I want to buy a 3rd month – that $50 penalty is an annoyance. Yet, I suppose it’s better than being saddled with a $7,000 medical bill.


If you have anything to add or think I am missing something important, comment below. Would love to hear from you!

Getting On As a New PCV


M26 Swearing-In Ceremony (August 2015)

Once you’ve received an invitation from Peace Corps, passed medical and legal clearance, sorted out your job and family affairs, you will still find yourself with oodles and oodles of time to think and wonder. Will I like it? Will I make it? How much of it will I love? hate?

My biggest fear pre-departure was that I wasn’t going to make it through Pre-Service Training. I was afraid that I was being hopelessly naive about moving to Mongolia. I had visions of returning home, lying in bed and crying myself to sleep because I hadn’t been able to hack it three months in Mongolia. And yeah, making it through PST was a proud moment.

Making it through my 27 months of service though will be an even prouder one.
Before I finish up here, I’d like to take a moment to share my thoughts on what made my service feel successful.** Of course not everyday was easy (e.g. today, wow), but I wasn’t contemplating Early Termination (ET) every other week. I didn’t hate my life or my service or my community at any point. Some of my work really validated me as a professional and other times, it made me want to crawl in bed and wish away the world.

The bar is not that high. And luckily, the five nuggets of advice I have for you are not completely unachievable either (or at least I hope). So if you’re getting ready to leave for Peace Corps, I recommend you stretch yourself to your limits with these.

** Necessary disclaimer: note that I didn’t say that my service ~was~ successful. The following tips are based on my own observations and experiences and do not reflect every post, every volunteer’s situation, every work/living situation to have ever existed. **

The Other 2/3

When I was in D.C. for Blog It Home, we were reminded over and over again that 2/3 of our work as a Peace Corps Volunteer is just to share culture: share America with your host country (Goal 2) and share your host country with America (Goal 3).

When you get to site and people don’t know why you’re there or – let’s be real here – you’re not exactly clear on why you’re there, just remember that the work-work is really only 1/3 of your purpose. You’d still be a successful volunteer if all you did was introduce your host family to pumpkin pie or the Kardashians. Or memes.


I don’t see commitment unless I see some heels!

Make Yourself Go Out

This is coming from an introvert who doesn’t like drinking, dancing or staying up late: yes, you should accept the invitation and go out, at least the first time around. Next year, if you really don’t want to go on the overnight 24 hour van ride through the countryside with bottles and bottles of Пиво, at least your counterparts will know it’s not because you don’t like them.

Until these kinds of understandings and relationships have formed, it’s important not to give the impression that you don’t want to be around your counterparts, host family or your community. It can be really hard that first year to get out when every normal day is so mentally exhausting. But these moments build trust and camaraderie with the people who are going to be looking out for you the next two years. And for those of you like me, just accept it’s going to be difficult. My advice is to pick the most important events, find tricks to avoid the drinking, and do the following:


The queen of laughter, my site mate Alex at IST (Photo by Ian Armstrong)

Smile Often, Laugh Even More

I’ll admit, this one is a bit of a learned skill. When you’re stressed, this is the last thing you feel in yourself. I finally started smiling and laughing more when I realized the stress of brooding and staying resentful made my day so much worse.

While I still don’t laugh or smile as often as I’d like, the things I used to take super seriously (like being in a pickle because of someone’s lack of forethought), I’ve learned to shrug it off and sometimes, smile about it. I’m not perfect at it but I recognize its value. You’d be surprised how much more strangers will like you because you smiled or laughed in an unexpected or awkward moment.

Don’t Burn Those Bridges

You may come in thinking that your counterparts and host country agency should be grateful for this huge sacrifice you’re making and the coveted skills you’re bringing, but your counterparts can very easily decide you’re not worth their time. Maybe they’re not comfortable with the ensuing power dynamic or have a hard time collaborating on your terms.

Even if it’s a frustrating first few months, don’t throw your hands up and say “Well, if you don’t want to work with me, I don’t want to work with you either!” Go back to advice #1. Just because you’re not doing all that much “at work,” you still have the other two goals. Or lower your expectations and meet your people where they are. Honestly, the worst thing you can do for yourself is give up in exasperation too soon. You’ll see this soon enough at Pre-Service Training, but we like to use a bridge metaphor for this idea of not meeting someone halfway but 90% of the way.


A new pose for the books  (@PST 2016 with my counterpart, Naraa)

Get That Hustle On

Last summer while I was a trainer at Pre-Service Training, my counterpart asked me if I worked at home after the day was over. It seemed like every morning when we sat down to go over the day’s lesson, I’d always come with a prepared list of questions and conundrums for the day. I laughed and told her about my weird habit of going through the next day in my head as I fell asleep. The “rehearsal” is my way of avoiding unnecessary stress and consequently, brings up issues that I can address before it’s too late.

My counterpart mentioned that she thinks it’s a very “American” or at least Western to be planners, problem solvers, movers and shakers;  it is a quality that she has found in common with many of the volunteers – young or old – with whom she’s worked with over the years.

When you are proactive about turning ideas into reality and when you hustle for success, people will usually appreciate what you’re trying to do and help in whatever way they can. Of course, there are going to be people who make the work more difficult than it should be, but we are known and valued for our work ethic and ability to plan, organize and think ahead. So use it! And most importantly, don’t be afraid to fail.


You are here to push your limits so let yourself be stressed, confused, uncomfortable, and unhappy. Just don’t stop or give up there. Give yourself time to adjust and change all those sore adjectives to ones of growth and maturity. For the sake of the medical clearance alone, you owe yourself that.

Good luck and cheers to your forthcoming 27 months!


Peace Corps Mongolia M26 (2015-2017)

The Ulaanbaatar Vlog

I’m not very proud to admit this but I’ve become a bit of a Youtube junkie.

I somehow went four years at Emory avoiding coffee addictions and late night Youtube binges but then Peace Corps happened and … I caved. I now spend countless hours in bed watching Youtubers vlog (video blogs). I eat up their advice about life, fashion, makeup, romance, fitness and travel. #whyamIsobasic

One Youtuber I can’t get enough of is Jenn Im, a Korean-American lifestyle blogger who is the same age as me and has a super fab life with her newly engaged English boo in Los Angeles. She’s incredibly bubbly and energetic on camera and her vlogs are so addicting to watch. While it’s pretty sad that I spend hours watching someone else live their normal life, there is one thing I can appreciate about vlogging. You basically film yourself doing day-to-day things but because you’ve paused to say something quickly on camera, you’ve now made that moment a little bit more special. You’ll have that memory, thought or impression forever! Maybe this is a stretch but I think vlogging can be a way of practicing presence. And then later, nostalgia.

After 10+ years of taking pictures and writing blogs, I want to try a new way of documenting my life.  I know I have a steep learning and comfort curve ahead of me with vlogging (like talking to a camera and filming myself in public like a weirdo) but it might end up being fun and memorable.

My first experience with vlogging happened this past week for my trip to Ulaanbaatar. Please don’t judge too much! I know the filming is shaky and the editing is rough, but I wanted to be sneaky with my camera because I’m not yet comfortable with the whole thing. But it really helped to have mates around to make things less awkward. Anyways, here’s the vlog, enjoy the ride from Uvurkhangai to Ulaanbaatar featuring my lovely friends Perrin and Saikhnaa!