The North Star Project, 2013-2014 Report Number Thirty-Four, It’s a Wonderful Life … in Mongolia, by Gina Sterk


The night before I left for Mongolia will always be a vivid memory for me.  I remember going boating with my parents and my dad remarking on how calm I was.  I remember my parents making the enchiladas I requested for dinner — knowing as little as we did about Mongolia, we did somehow know that enchiladas were about to become hard to come by for me.

I remember returning home to pack and abruptly losing my calmness as I found myself overreacting to the smallest things.  What if this suitcase weighs more than 50 pounds?  What will happen if I can’t lift this into the overhead compartment? What if Mongolian customs reject me?  Petty questions that masked bigger, realer questions, like What if I don’t make friends? What if I’m homesick?  What if I’m not happy in Mongolia?

Well, I have now been in Mongolia for nearly five months, and my time as a Fulbright scholar is nearly half over.  I write this having just returned from my school’s New Year’s party, where my coworkers of all ages ate and drank and danced the night away.  While I can barely speak Mongolian, and am still getting the hang of things here, I can confidently say that all of my fears were unnecessary — in short, I’m having a great time and have made great friends.


Of course it has crossed my mind that if I hadn’t decided to come to Mongolia, I would have been celebrating Christmas and New Year’s with my family during the past few weeks, eating my favorite Christmas cookies, listening to my siblings bicker, and trying to find a parking spot at the Miller Hill Mall.

But even while being away from my family during this most wonderful time of the year is difficult, I’m learning something from being in Mongolia.

Christmas has been all the more meaningful for me as I have sought out ways to celebrate it in a country in which Christmas isn’t recognized.  Just as it is special to gather with my family at this time each year, it is special to gather in new places with new people in the same spirit as my family always has back home.

I’ll never forget the Christmas Eve I spent walking through a snowy, colorful Sukhbaatar Square on my way to a Sri Lankan buffet with a group of incredible friends I didn’t know five months ago.  And I’ll never forget the New Year’s party I attended at the Thai Express in Ulanbaatar with glittery women, merrily dancing men, and a Santa Claus dressed all in white (in the Russian fashion).

While I miss my family, and enchiladas, I’ve found nothing to be lost, but much to be gained, by celebrating this Christmas with the wonderful community I have found here in Mongolia.

For all of the North Star Project 2013-2014 Reports, see
For all of the North Star Project 2013 Summer Reports, see

The North Star Project 2013-2014 School Year Reports: The Middle Ground Journal’s collaborative outreach program with K-12 classes around the world. We gratefully acknowledge North Star Academy of Duluth, Minnesota as our inaugural partner school, and the flagship of our K-12 outreach program. We also warmly welcome Duluth East High School and Dodge Middle School to the North Star Project.

Under the leadership of our North Star host teachers and student interns, The North Star Project has flourished for two years. For a brief summary, please see a recent article in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:

Having re-tooled and re-designed the collaborative program, we are drawing on the experience of our veteran student interns, ideas from our host teachers, and new projects provided by our incoming student interns. This school year The Middle Ground Journal will share brief dispatches from our North Star Project student interns, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. As of the time of this report we have confirmed student interns who will be reporting from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, northeastern China, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Finland, Russia, and Haiti. We also have students developing presentations on theatrical representations of historical trauma, historical memory, the price individuals pay during tragic global conflicts, and different perceptions of current events from around the world.  We will post their brief dispatches here, and report on their interactions with the North Star students and teachers throughout the school year.

Hong-Ming Liang, Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN, USA, 2013-2014 School Year

(c) 2014 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 8, Spring, 2014. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy.


Filed under North Star Student Editors, Professor Hong-Ming Liang

8 responses to “The North Star Project, 2013-2014 Report Number Thirty-Four, It’s a Wonderful Life … in Mongolia, by Gina Sterk

  1. I think the fears that you express about your trip abroad are fears that many of us face when we embark on our own for the first time, or for any extended time period. It’s scary and it’s natural to start worrying, but the important thing is to not let the worrying hold you back. I am glad that you have found your experiences there pleasurable and hopefully you have found some greater meanings in what it is to be apart of this great world we live in.

  2. Johanna Jurgens

    Leaving you family to go travel is always hard, especially when it’s for months. I recently just moved here to the United States, and the beginning was extremely hard. I kept thinking how I didn’t feel at home, but after a short period of time I was able to find amazing things here. I’m extremely glad that I came here because I have matured and I have met wonderful people. Was it hard in the beginning for you?

  3. Maija

    I know that I would have had all those same questions going through my head, plus a thousand more! It sounds like an incredible experience, even though it can be hard to leave everything you know. It would be fun to experience a major holiday, like Christmas, in a different country (esp one that has different customs).

  4. Rachel Studley

    I love you found a deeper meaning in the holidays, even though you were not able to spend time with your own family you spent time with some new friends and were able to simply enjoy the moment. I think many people get too often caught up in the commercialization of Christmas and do not enjoy it as much they would if they were simply focusing on appreciating spending time with their loved ones.

  5. Samantha Roettger

    Your experience sounds absolutely amazing. Thank you for expressing your fears as a traveler. You said that it was an overreaction, but it really was not. All travelers have the same fears of customs, making friends, and leaving home. I think it is these fears that make going abroad even more fulfilling because we have overcome our fears, no matter how small or large they seem.

  6. I could totally relate to what you wrote. I had a similar experience when I moved to the US. It is hard to leave family and go to a place that is far from home. However, such a situation requires flexibility and adjustment to the new area. I am glad you had such an amazing experience.

  7. Megan Gonrowski

    Hello Gina,
    I was somewhat relieved to hear the random thoughts and fears that ran through your head before packing because that makes my worries seem normal. I have been pretty anxious to go to Ecuador but as my flight date comes nearer and nearer I feel more calm and less stressed about the unknown. However, I know when it comes to packing I will have another set of random worries about forgetting something important. Luckily, I have been able to ask people who have been on the same study abroad trip the items that they packed and found important. As for celebrating holidays abroad, I will be there for Easter which is my favorite Christian holiday and I’ll be interested to see how they celebrate there.

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