Central Asian hospitality

Naadam

Mongolian Sunset in Autumn

Name: Owen Johns
U-M Affiliation: Student, Staff

Where do you work?

SNRE

When did you serve in the Peace Corps?

2005-2007

Where did you serve (which country/countries)?

Mongolia

What were your main responsibilities as a volunteer?

Community Development and TEFL

Is there a specific person (or persons) who made a strong impression on you during that time?

My host mother and fater, Serj- Oyun and Mandakh; US Ambassador Mark Minton; Peace Corps Country Director Ken Goodson.

What was one of the most memorable moments you had as a volunteer?

I arrived in my host village, Orkhon Soum, Selenge Province in August 2005. After 3 months of language training, the school picked me up in the provincial capital after I had taken a solemn oath to protect the U.S. Constitution and had officially sworn in to become a Peace Corps volunteer. We drove hours through lush and verdant countryside, on what was then one of Mongolia's only paved roads. The driver's name was Baatar (or Hero), and he would drive me countless times afterwards. Baatar was an expert driver, pausing for herds on the road, making sure the mix tape never stopped blaring, and prepared for any and all car malfunctions. We turned off the paved road onto a dirt track that must have predated the arrival of automobiles in Mongolia. We drove towards the village, now only minutes away. As we circumnavigated crumbling and moribund Soviet-era infrastructure (a machine shop, an industrial slaughterhouse) Bymbaa, the schools administrative manager remarked, "This is your home for the next two years. Welcome." It was at once beautiful and frightening. I barely spoke the language, hardly knew the people at that point, which terrified me, but the bucolic scenery reassured me. I would never have made it through the first bitter winter without the help of my newfound community. As the river froze, they taught me how to get water with an axe and a bucket; to keep me warm they taught me how to saw and chop wood, and how to tend a fire. At the end of that first winter, I remember seeing the first blade of grass on my walk to school. It was April, and then I knew that I had indeed made Orkhon my home. I will never forget that moment or the two years that followed.

In what ways did your Peace Corps experience affect your life and/or career decisions?

The Peace Corps certainly influenced both my academic and professional goals. Living at the mercy of the land and sky, I accidentally became an environmentalist. I took the GRE on a sunny day in the capital with 5 other volunteers and waited patiently for the results to arrive by Mongol Post. I gratefully have Peace Corps fellowships in both of my colleges at the University of Michigan: The School of Natural Resources and Environment and the Ford School of Public Policy, where I am pursuing a dual degree.

What advice would you give to others who are contemplating going into the Peace Corps?

If you want to change the world, you should join. If you seek adventure, you should join. If you have an open mind, you will indeed have a journey and become a more culturally sensitive member of humanity in the process. You might change the world, too.

What is the value gained from the Peace Corps experience?

For me the value of the Peace Corps is friendship and shared sentimentality. I made and maintain many friendships from my time volunteering. I know I can wander into the Mongolian countryside at any point in my life and find someone I know.

What lessons did you learn in the Peace Corps that you carry with you today?

The primal lesson I take with me wherever I go is that people are people before anything else, including race, ethnicity, nationality, gender and sexuality, religious belief, political affiliations, et cetera.

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