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Conquering Health Problems in the Land of Genghis Khan

Sain ben oo?

That's the greeting I've heard for the past year in Mongolia. I am a Peace Corps health volunteer in a town of approximately 12,000 people. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would end up in this remote and little-known country. When most people think of Mongolia, they naturally think of the great emperor Genghis Khan, but there's much more to this most amazing place.


Mongolia is made up of rolling green hills, mountains, extinct volcanoes and the vast Gobi Desert. In summer the landscape is speckled with gers (traditional nomadic homes made of felt and wood). Winters bring a thick blanket of snow. Mongolia is a large but sparsely populated country with only 3 million people.


Nomadic herders still roam in search of grazing pastures to fatten their animals for the long winters. They express their complex and deep traditions mostly through song. If you can sing, then you will be welcomed openly into the homes of many Mongolian people. You'll likely be served airag, a fermented mare's milk that is surprisingly very tasty. If you can't finish an entire bowl three times in one sitting, then you must sing. (I've never been a good singer but I'm even worse in Mongolian.)


San Francisco State ranks 16th among all U.S. universities in number of graduates who have worked in the Peace Corps: 1,214 since 1961.


My work here is both rewarding and challenging. It is difficult to address seemingly simple health issues because of tradition, culture, and a lack of both equipment and knowledge. For example, people could easily keep their children in the sun for at least 15 minutes a day to prevent rickets, but babies are bundled up so tightly, they don't receive enough vitamin D. Sanitation is another problem. In one hospital I found a soap container constructed out of a plastic beer bottle and IV tubes.


It's not all disheartening. I've learned that working in a developing country doesn't bring immediate gratification. If I can help even a handful of people in two years, and I know I can, then I will have done my job. With a little training and support, the people I'm assisting can become peer educators who will help generations of Mongolians to come.


Next summer, when my service ends, I hope to pursue an M.A. in anthropology, but I am leaving my options open to continue working abroad. Mongolia has become a home to me. I have grown immensely in this past year and have developed some very close friendships. It will be hard to say goodbye.

Melinda Cordasco (B.A., '06) is one of 25 SF State graduates serving as Peace Corps volunteers in nearly 20 countries, from Albania to Zambia. All are part of a long-standing tradition of service at the University. San Francisco State ranks 16th among all U.S. universities in number of graduates who have worked in the Peace Corps: 1,214 since 1961.


Changing Lives and a Few Tires, Too

By Tera Gross (B.A., '05)


Photo of Tera Gross volunteering in Mongolia. Photo Courtesy of Tera Gross.What do Peace Corps volunteers do? Well, we don't all live in thatched huts in small villages teaching English or nutrition. Every Peace Corps experience is different; if I lived in a thatched hut I'd have frozen by now. — Photo Courtesy of Tera Gross


I joined Peace Corps for the simple idea of spending an adventurous two years abroad meeting new people and making a difference in their lives; I knew teachers and students at SF State who had served and it seemed like a great learning opportunity, as well as a good chance to see how international organizations in development work.


I now work as a health volunteer in Mongolia, the vast country south of Russia that was once enveloped in the Soviet Union. I live in the capital city, home to more than one million people and the center of business, education and technology. Every morning I wake up in my Soviet-style apartment and walk 20 minutes to my host agency, the headquarters of the Mongolian Red Cross. In the winter the temperature can drop to 40 below, which requires some extra layering. Occasionally I visit one of our branches and sometimes I train staff on grassroots fundraising or report writing.


There's a great deal of poverty here and our organization is heavily dependent on foreign donors. This can make managing activities even more difficult with the added paperwork and bureaucracy. I have gained a greater appreciation for the other side of international aid; while international organizations pump aid into developing countries, those countries are running to keep up.


The infrastructure is not very well developed; sometimes our work stops for a few hours during the day when the power suddenly goes out. Our trips to the countryside are often slowed by flat tires. These minor dramas and the typical cultural differences add spice to my otherwise humdrum job.


The Mongolians have taught me patience and flexibility. There are times when things do not go as planned, or when weather, electricity or month-long holidays conspire against you, and when they do, you simply adjust.


I'm not sure about my future plans; but because of my Peace Corps experience, I feel like I can handle any adventure in life, be it in an office or in a hut.



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