The last two months have been an enormous ego check for me. Internally, I think I knew it when I was planning to study abroad in Copenhagen with many of my classmates for what would have undoubtedly been a delightful semester.
But as fall of junior year drew closer, my gut (and my professors Bill Ascher and Jennifer Taw) kept telling me that Copenhagen wasn’t the right decision for me. I needed something truly different, a proper shock to the system. I needed space from the CMC I knew and loved. The CMC bubble supported me and helped me grow both as a student and human being, but it also limited me in my focus and passion as I got caught up in the web of acronyms — REC, RDS, ASCMC, SIF — that narrowed my self-concept to half the letters in the alphabet. I needed to face a challenge that resulted in more than just a bullet-point on my resume, an indication of a semester spent in rote.
My story is not unique — it seems that CMC students are finally beginning to recognize the need to overcome personal challenges beyond those provided on a LinkedIn profile. Once I realized this myself, I understood that I couldn’t alter my paradigm within the confines of either North Quad or Copenhagen, which seemed to me as an extended version of North Quad. After a bit of thinking, Mongolia popped up on my radar. Following an extended internal debate right before spring finals, I bit the bullet and withdrew my study abroad application from the comfort of central Europe in favor of system-shocking Mongolia.
Without a doubt, this has been the best decision I’ve made since coming to CMC.
Admittedly, I arrived in Mongolia with a fairly inflated opinion of myself — I just finished an exciting internship and had already received so many “You’re going to Mongolia?! That’s so adventurous!” comments that I actually started to believe that this choice somehow made me special.
Then, about one month into my time in Mongolia, I began my two-week homestay in the steppe with my 25-year-old host parents and their 3-year-old daughter. In just that short time, I came to realize exactly how limited my understanding of “adventurous” really was.
During this homestay, I faced a number of new experiences: I ate goat pancreas; wrestled sheep; milked cows; drank fermented horse milk; set up a ger, a typical round, felt tent seen in Mongolia; moved a 500 head herd of goats and sheep 1.5 km on foot; wrestled a Mongolian man; and raced my host dad, who was once the second best horseback rider in Mongolia, on horseback. Again and again, as a result of these experiences, I was reminded of the limitations of my talents.
Have you ever been elbow-deep in the chest cavity of a goat? Have you ever castrated a horse with only your bare hands and an X-Acto knife, then cooked and eaten the aftermath? Ever looked at the sky and thought it was so big that it could literally swallow you whole?
My ability to succeed in the classroom, land a good internship, or catch fire at the BP table during TNR taught me nothing about surviving on the steppe. On the morning of September 23, I walked out the door of my ger into howling wind and snow as Mongolia sat on the verge of a dzud, or White Death Winter. At that moment, it hit me just how narrow my definition of “challenge” truly was. Without exaggeration, I would have died on the steppe if my host parents had not spoon-fed me through those two weeks. Humility whacked me over the head like a hammer every single day during my homestay as I realized that, even with more than half of a CMC degree completed, I lacked basically all of the skills necessary to survive as a herder in Mongolia. In order to move forward with this insight, I was challenged with accepting the truth and making every effort to develop the new and necessary skills, even if my recent goat butchering talent would never serve me beyond my time in the countryside.
This, CMC, is a lesson that I hope I can carry through to my return to campus in January. Yes, we are talented enough in the classroom to derive the equation for the Phillips Curve, debate Rawls’ Theory of Justice as fairness, or even formulate better policies regarding Syria than the U.S. Government. Many of us have grown up believing that by receiving the best grades, getting into the best colleges, and landing the best jobs, we have peaked. We perceive that the challenges of schools and careers are the greatest we will face in our lives, even as they become bullet-points to be fit on a one-page, single-sided piece of paper with the smallest margins manageable.
Whether it be Mongolia, Copenhagen, D.C., or even Claremont, I believe the same notion applies. We should all seek greater challenges, strive to develop new skills, expand our empathy, and make an effort to act with more humility. Most importantly, the challenges we seek should not be defined by our geographic limitations or our artificial love for acronyms. Settling for a class, major, study abroad program, or an assumption that we have out-challenged ourselves is the greatest danger that exists within the CMC bubble. Please, break out of Appleby. Disrupt your routine and try something new. Embarrass yourself, act like an incompetent two-year-old, and whatever you do, don’t add “Mongolian cooking” to the “personal interests” section of your LinkedIn once you’re done.