You wouldn’t think a visit to Minnesota’s Iron Range would be on the agenda for a class about Mongolia, but you’d be wrong.

In fact, students of the first-year course Contemporary Mongolia: Livelihoods, Economics and Environments found the weekend trip to northern Minnesota most instructive. “That area of the state has been impacted by many of the same problems related to resource extraction and indigenous culture that Mongolia appears likely to suffer from soon,” says Daniel Szetela ’19 (Acton, Mass.). Adds Katy Jolly ’19 (McLean, Va.), “The trip helped me visualize the effects of mining on a community in a way that reading articles alone cannot.”

That field trip—during which they visited mines, mining towns, and Native American casinos—was just one of many revelations for these students of geography professor Holly Barcus. “They come in with basically no knowledge of the country,” she says, “But by the time they’re done, they no longer see Mongolia as some exotic unknown culture.”

Over the semester, Barcus leads them through a bit of Mongolia’s history and political geographies as well as its landscapes, mining and tourism industries, pastoralism, ethnic identities, and growing urbanization and privatization of land. As a geographically large country with just three million inhabitants, Mongolia has “lots of open land” to fight over, says Barcus.

Along the way her students also must cover the same topics as any other first-year course: learning to write well, getting oriented to the campus and the Twin Cities, and becoming a community.

To the last point, Barcus organizes one social event each month. Besides the September field trip, the students visited the home of an emeritus geography professor, took a trip to the Global Market on Minneapolis’s Lake Street, and enjoyed dinner at their teacher’s house.

Community building is also helped by the residential nature of the course: all the students live in Doty Hall. “The people in this class are my closest friends,” says Jolly. “It makes discussions in class more interesting and getting help from friends outside of class much easier.” Adds Szetela, “I consider all the Mongolia family to be friends, and constantly seeing them in the halls, stairwells, and bathrooms of Doty” has only cemented those friendships. As for Barcus, all she’ll say is, “Yes, they’ve bonded.”

Barcus developed an interest in Mongolia during a Fulbright year she spent there. During that time she found a colleague to conduct research with, ultimately gaining funding for that research from the National Science Foundation and the Mellon Foundation.

Her deep knowledge of the subject is obvious, say her students, at least one of whom has caught the geography bug. “I am definitely thinking about majoring in geography,” says Jolly. “I’ve found this class and whole department very welcoming and relevant to my interest areas.”

And then there’s Mongolia itself: “It never stops being fascinating,” says Barcus.

March 21 2016

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