To Mongolia and back again

Andrea Dean of Fort Collins had a topic ready-made for her “What I did over summer vacation” essay this year. She spent four weeks in Mongolia in June and July.

“I was on the waiting list for a program in Cambodia, but I had already committed to Mongolia when that spot opened up,” Dean said. “The trip to Kenya was postponed – that made my mom happy, because of the unstable situation there. But any one of them would have good.”

Dean is the daughter of Kathleen and Alan Dean, and now a senior in the International Baccalaureate program at Poudre High School. She was one of two Colorado high school juniors among 28 students chosen to participate in the Enhancing Global Perspective Youth Leadership Program sponsored by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and administered through the University of Wyoming 4-H Youth Development Program. This was the program’s second year; the state department picked up almost all of the students’ travel costs and expenses.

Dean said young people from the western U.S. were chosen for the Mongolia trip in part because of the similarities between the two regions, in terms of geography and environmental issues resulting from a mining boom.

“I learned so much about the history and culture of Mongolia — it’s so rich and the landscape is so beautiful,” Dean said. “What I hadn’t anticipated was making real connections with Mongolian people, like my host family. They were all really involved in our activities. I still talk with my host sister on Facebook, even though the 14-hour time difference is harder to deal with now that we’re back in school.”

The trip started with a flight from San Francisco to Beijing and, after a nine-hour layover in the airport, a flight to Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital. After two days there, which included an orientation by Peace Corps Volunteers, the group split up to join their host families.

In addition to going on a camping trip with her family where they stayed in gers – which look a lot like yurts found in the Rocky Mountains – Dean also experienced a Naadam festival.

“It’s a celebration that goes back to Ghengis Khan,” she said, using the Mongolian pronunciation “Chingis.” “There are competitions in the three major sports: wrestling, archery and horseback riding.”

Dean’s photographs, including those of the Naadam, won a third place ribbon at the Colorado State Fair this year, while her 4-H Global Citizenship project on the trip took a Grand Championship.

The trip sponsors had warned the students to be polite no matter what they were offered to eat in Mongolia, but Dean said she really like the food. She didn’t mind the airag, fermented mare’s milk, but her favorite dish was huushuur, a sort of fried empanada stuffed with mutton – or when she wasn’t feeling well, vegetables, courtesy of her host family.

“What I really appreciated was the kindness and generosity of all the people we met,” Dean said. “People say Americans are materialistic, but we really are. I’m happy I got to take away that part of the Mongolian culture, to bring some generosity home.”

Now that she’s home, Dean is working on college applications and already considering taking a gap year, perhaps in a program that will send her to Morocco to learn Arabic. Her parents couldn’t be prouder.

“We had no worries about her going to Mongolia; we were really excited for her to be able to experience another part of the world,” said Kathleen Dean. “We know she is a level-headed and responsible person. The hard part was just missing her, not having her here for a month, but everything is so connected now, we kept in touch.”

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