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SIT Mongolia: Geopolitics and the Environment
Examine international relations, natural resource management, nomadic traditions, and economic growth from Mongolia’s unique vantage point.
The program looks at the interplay between foreign engagement, economic development, and natural resource utilization in the context of Mongolia, a nation facing rapid economic and environmental change. Students scrutinize the multitude of ways in which mining, conservation of pasturelands, grazing rights, and other resource management issues are shaping public and private life. For one to two weeks, students live alongside nomadic herding communities and experience some of the most pristine natural environments in the world.
Major topics of study include:
- Diplomatic engagement with major global economies including the US and regional relations with China, Russia, and North Korea
- Rapid urbanization and the rise of urban consumption in the context of a dramatic influx of foreign direct investment (FDI)
- The search for a balance between environmental conservation and natural resource development
- Cultural shifts among Mongolia’s pastoral population
- Socioeconomic and political reform
Though this program is geared towards US students, one must be motivated, research-oriented, and independent to be successful on this program. That said, it is great preparation for self-designed majors and those interested in using this as a jumping point for graduate or Fulbright work.
Languages of Instruction
Fall 2018: Late August to Late December
Spring 2019: Late February to Early June
All dates are tentative and may change. SIT will alert all accepted students of final dates.
To be eligible to participate in this program, students must meet the following requirements:
- Good academic and judicial standing during time of application AND time of participation in program
- Undergraduates must have completed at least three semesters of undergraduate study AND have second-semester sophomore status or higher before participation. Junior status or higher is strongly preferred.
- At least 18 years of age by the program’s departure date.
- Be able to stay at the host program for the duration of the semester, including through the exam and travel periods
- Minimum GPA of 2.5
- Prior coursework in politics or environmental studies would be helpful.
This program may have a cap of 3-semester students per year.
The SIT Mongolia program consists of the following elements: a weeklong orientation, two thematic seminars, research methods and ethics course, a rural and urban homestay, an intensive Mongolian language course, and a four-week independent study research project. Students earn 16-semester credits for the program, which is equivalent to 4 Lake Forest credits.
Students on this program have the rare opportunity to:
- Experience the international roots of Mongolian culture, examining similarities and differences between contemporary Russian, Chinese, and Central Asian cultures
- Explore diverse topics ranging from Buddhism to coal mining to cashmere to wildlife of the Gobi
- Discuss current issues with members of Mongolia’s Parliament and local governments
- Interact with Mongolian musicians
- Eat seasonal, local food based on the annual cycle
- Experience life in a country both protected and restricted by a dramatic physical environment that includes the Gobi Desert, vast mountain ranges, and forest steppes
- Ride horses as a form of transportation*
* Students receive lessons during the semester. If possible, students should plan to bring a riding helmet. Riding boots may be purchased in Mongolia.
Seminar on pastoralism and natural resource management
In this course, students examine Mongolia’s nomadic population and the impact of political, social, and economic transformations and national resource management policies on Mongolia’s social, cultural, and physical environments.
Main topics of inquiry in the Pastoralism and Natural Resource Management seminar include:
- The history, traditions, and livelihood of Mongolia’s nomadic communities and the challenges for this population as a result of Mongolia’s political transformations and development policies.
- Mongolia’s attempt to create a national resource management policy that balances conservation and traditional values and practices with the demands of the mining industry and other modern business and economic development opportunities.
Seminar on geopolitics and development trends
In the geopolitics and development course, students focus on Mongolia’s path to political and economic development and the country’s current strategies for external relations and internal growth.
Students analyze two key academic themes:
- Mongolia’s diplomatic attempts to cultivate key international allies through its Third Neighbor Policy, and its engagement with China, Russia, the two Koreas, and Japan within the geopolitics of northeast Asia.
- Mongolia’s development policies and its attempt to address issues of rapid urbanization and growth.
Learn the language of Mongolia.
Students receive 45 class hours of intensive language instruction beginning shortly after arrival. Classes are conducted by trained Mongolian language instructors and emphasize introductory speaking and comprehension skills. Further practice is available outside of class, including during the homestays.
Independent Study Project
In the final month of the program, students conduct an Independent Study Project (ISP). This provides each student with an opportunity to pursue original research on a situation or topic of particular interest to him/her.
Possible areas of inquiry include a wide range of topics and study areas including:
- Nomadic organization in transition
- Cashmere trade and cultural interaction with China and Siberia
- Buddhist painting, sculpture, and architecture
- Environmental impacts of mining
- Symbols of collectivism and pastoralism in daily life
- Education policy since the disintegration of the socialist system
- Cultural perceptions of Mongolian medicinal plants
- Commodity production and regional politics
- Mongolians of Kazakh descent and their place in modern Islam
- Investment climate for foreign direct investment
- Mongolia’s Third Neighbor Policy
- Urbanization of the nomadic nation
- The concept of national security in Mongolia
- Nature conservation efforts and natural resource management
Check to see if your department has pre-approved courses here. If not, don’t worry. You can work with your advisor.
The SIT Mongolia program includes a number of excursions, which exposes students to life outside the capital city. Excursions vary from semester to semester based on seasonal and climate conditions, but may include one of the following:
Erdenet (3–4 days)
In Erdenet, Mongolia’s second-largest city, students learn about Mongolia’s manufacturing and mining industries, while contemplating the country’s past, present, and future in the context of one city. Erdenet is home to one of the world’s largest copper mines, Erdenet Copper Mine, which has been a central player in Mongolia’s development. Presently the mining corporation is the sole copper concentrate producer and accounts for between one-fifth and one-fourth of Mongolia’s GDP.
During the excursion to Erdenet, if travel conditions permit, students visit Amarbayasgalant Monastery, one of the largest and most beautiful Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia. It is considered a sacred cultural landscape. Students meet the monastery’s small but thriving Buddhist community, attend their morning or evening ritual chanting, and may have the chance to play soccer with the lamas.
Sainshand, Khamryn Hiid/Khamar Monastery (3–4 days)
Students travel to Dornogobi Province (East Gobi) to the site of Khamryn Hiid. The province is connected with the name of Danzan Ravjaa (1803–1853), officially known as the Fifth Reincarnate Lama of the Gobi. Students learn about the life and times of this extraordinary man, an enlightened master, a distinguished Buddhist thinker, an outstanding figure of the Mongolian Buddhist reformist movement of the 19th century.
Highlights of the excursion include:
- Visiting the recently re-established Khamar Monastery. The original, like so many historic monasteries across the country, was completely destroyed during the political and religious purges of the 1930s. Students conduct in-depth interviews with individuals who have devoted their lives to Khamryn Khiid restoration endeavors. Students explore the monastery’s meditation caves used by lamas of the monastery for advanced tantric meditations and retreats 150 years ago.
- Observing the revival of the circumambulation, prostration, and puja practices of Northern Shambala land. Students experience local religious and cultural practices at Khan Bayanzurkh, the most famous Gobi mountain associated with Mongolian religious beliefs and rituals.
- Learning about opportunities, attainments, and challenges of East Gobi development. Expansion of mineral industry mainly located in the Gobi area is turning Sainshand, a provincial town, into a center for an industrial park. Students meet officials from the provincial government who can shed more light on geopolitical issues around this area.
Additional religious centers and sites
Mahayana Buddhism is increasing its popularity alongside Islam, Christianity, and Shamanic practices. Lectures at and excursions to various religious centers and sites help students find themselves in the midst of a religious re-emergence that is taking place in Mongolia following the transition from a Communist government to a democracy in the early 1990s.
Field excursions to Mongolian nature sites, combined with formal lectures and seminars, expose students to the environmental challenges and threats Mongolia is facing in relation to increased globalization. Students meet with policymakers, environmental NGO activists, and leaders of grassroots movements who are opposing destructive mining operations to protect Mongolia’s natural environment.
Housing and Meals
Students live with host families in urban and rural areas to experience the diversity of contemporary Mongolia. Students discover the cosmopolitan nature of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital and largest city, as well as the open expanses of the steppe or high mountains and rolling hills through homestays with nomadic communities.
Other accommodations during the program include apartments, guest houses, educational institutions, or small hotels.
Urban homestay in Ulaanbaatar (three to four weeks)
Students experience Mongolian middle-class urban life, practice their Mongolian language skills, and test their new cultural skills in the context of a family in Ulaanbaatar. Host families are often excellent sources of contacts and information for students’ Independent Study Projects. All host families live in apartment blocks located in various micro-districts of the city. Students typically form strong connections with their host families.
During this period of the program, students attend lectures and language classes at the SIT program center and visit important cultural sites throughout Ulaanbaatar.
Rural homestay (one to two weeks)
Students live with a nomadic community in either central or northern Mongolia, depending on the season and travel conditions. These communities regularly move in search of better pastures and water for their livestock in the steppe. Students typically work with and learn from the nomadic community, actively participating in a wide range of daily animal herding and household chores.
- Central Mongolian plains. Central Mongolia is the land of the central Mongolian Khalkh people, Mongolia’s largest ethnic group and nomads who move between five and ten times a year. The region includes open steppe with rolling hills and a semi-desert area. During this period, students live in a ger, a transportable shelter made of felt and wood.
- Northern Mongolia. The northern part of the country is a remote mountainous area containing forests; it has a different climate and environmental influences from the central region. For part of the year, nomadic families in the north live in wooden structures, and some of them herd reindeer. The region is home to the Buriad, Darkhad, and other ethnic groups. In Buriad areas, students will observe similarities to Russian culture.
Highlights of the rural homestay period include:
- Engaging with community members involved in local politics
- Discovering the influence of governmental policies on rural communities
- Gaining firsthand perspective on herders’ coping strategies with issues of desertification, climate change, and Mongolia’s ongoing socio-economic transformation
- Teaching English to Mongolian students at area schools (may not be possible every semester)
- Gaining insight into the nature of the tensions and relationship between rural communities and mining companies
- Debating how changes in transportation, such as the motorcycle, can affect nomadic life and discussing the introduction of renewable energy technologies
- Learning centuries-old traditions including nature conservation practices
During the rural homestay period, students also work on their Research Methods and Ethics assignments and language skills, synthesizing new information within the frameworks presented through the thematic seminars.
For all approved programs for guaranteed financial aid transferability, students pay their Lake Forest College tuition plus a program fee. The program fee for the SIT program includes orientation, on-site director, program fees, housing, most meals, and insurance.
Here is an estimated budget for the Fall 2018/Spring 2019:
Lake Forest College Tuition
Program fee (estimated)
Program Deposit (credit)
Total Expected Billed by Lake Forest College
Program Deposit (non-refundable)
Estimated Personal Expenses (passport, visas, immunizations, books, supplies, personal expenses, additional travel etc.)
Total Out-of-Pocket Expenses
Tuition rates and program fees are subject to change each year, but this information was up-to-date as of February 2018. We will notify applicants, and update this page, if the program fee or other estimates change.
Deposits to other programs, if required, will appear as a credit on your study abroad term bill.
Keep in mind that you may spend more or less in certain areas like personal expenses, travel, meals, or airfare, depending on exchange rates and your own spending habits. Classroom or lab fees are not included in this estimate.
Don’t forget to apply for scholarships! A great listing can be found here. SIT will also have its own awards available, including Pell Grant matches.
Do check your student account on My.Lakeforest for your aid awards, as much of this will go with you. If you want to compare your program to the cost of being on campus, those numbers can be found here: https://www.lakeforest.edu/admissions/tuition/fees.php
You can discuss with Financial Aid your specific aid package and your expected family contribution.