By ALEXANDER McNab
It’s just after six in the morning, and eight-year-old Otgontugs Banzragch, a future alumna of the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences class of 2011, is starting her day. She wakes up in a bed beside which a baby goat sleeps when it’s winter to keep from freezing in the notoriously brutal cold of the Mongolian countryside.
Around the rest of the ger, Banzragch’s grandmother, father, mother, and sister are also rising, preparing to milk the cows and make tea.
Banzragch first gathers water – 10 liters in each hand – from the Delgermurun, the same river she bathes in when the weather’s warm enough. In the wintertime, she pays a dollar for hot showers from the communal bathhouse in town.
Today, Banzragch cannot wrestle and ride the baby cows and goats like she wants to. It is her turn to look after the animals.
Alone for nine hours only with 200 to 400 sheep and goats and the mountains, rivers, and lakes of Mongolia’s Khuvsgul Province, there is little to keep Banzragch entertained. Even a half hour of rest is enough time to lose track of her flock, so instead, she thinks. She fantasizes about next summer and about the dress and bike that she’ll ask her grandparents for on their next trip into town.
She dreams about a new ball, about chocolate and orange juice from Russia, about apples. They are only available around the New Year. Her mouth waters just from the smell of them in the local store.
Nutrition is never far from Banzragch’s mind when a herding lifestyle leaves her drinking mostly cow’s and goat’s milk, and communist rations make the freshest food in her belly the meat from the marmots that her uncles hunt in the summer.
The young Banzragch thought about many things in Murun soum in northern Mongolia, but never did she contemplate her schooling. Nor did she ever believe that one day she would be the first Mongolian to graduate with a Ph.D. from Columbia University.
Sixteen years later, in 1992, soon after Mongolia’s democratic revolution ended 70 years of socialism, Banzragch was on a train in Russia. She had just graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Lomonosov Moscow State University and sat on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to take what she believed would be her final trip back home.
“That’s the last time I’m seeing this city,” she thought to herself.
In a turn of events that was perhaps as unexpected as Mongolia’s massive and rapid shift away from socialism, Banzragch found herself, five years later, in Manchester, England, studying for a master’s degree in economics.
It was here, at the University of Manchester, that she first contemplated Columbia. Her academic advisor, Ken Clark, encouraged her to seriously consider getting her Ph.D. in the U.S. where, Banzragch explains, all of the best modern economics books have been written.
Worn out from exams and then from the birth of her son in 2000, it wasn’t until 2003 that Banzragch started acting on Clark’s advice. She knew that she had to improve her English, so she bought English language economics textbooks – Dornbusch and Fischer – from Russia and practiced translating them.
When Banzragch moved to the Big Apple, she was no longer coming from the place where as a little girl she would daydream about juice and fruit. She had been living in the big city – or Mongolia’s version of it. In 2005, Ulaanbaatar probably seemed bustling for the citizens of one of the planet’s least densely populated countries, but it was a far cry from the Ulaanbaatar of today and an even further cry from New York City.
When the taxi dropped Banzragch and her family off at 509 W. 121st Street, she was confused by the unfamiliar architecture of Bancroft Hall. Its Doric columns and ornamentation were decidedly contrary to the stark, Soviet apartment blocks in Ulaanbaatar, but on the website, Columbia had somehow looked different.
The driver assured her that it was the right address. She went into her room and unpacked.
“I think I’m in the right place,” Banzragch told her teenage daughter Nomin in their new apartment. “But there must be Columbia University with this ball building,” she said then, referring to the iconic round shape of the top of Low Library. “I need to find that place.”
It wasn’t until orientation three days later that Banzragch finally found Low Library.
Banzragch had discovered the Columbia she’d been looking for, but it took her a year to find a feeling of attachment to her new city. Growing up in a ger, Banzragch says, gave her a sense of family, of unity, and of belonging.
“We’re all together,” she reminisces. “We need to work hard all together. In that way only will you have food or a warm ger,” she says, using the Mongolian word for home.
The apartment in Bancroft, where Banzragch stayed throughout her five years at Columbia, came to develop a similar sense of connectedness between Banzragch and her two children. It was in part because even with a bathroom, two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen, it was a relatively small apartment. But in addition to its size, Banzragch’s home at Columbia came to resemble her home in Khuvsgul, because she actively worked to preserve her family’s Mongolian-ness while living in New York City.
“I didn’t want to lose it, because we need to stick together,” Banzragch says about the communal feeling of living in a ger. “If we couldn’t share everything with each other, we would be in trouble…It comes from the nomadic, this kind of doing – all, everything-together culture.”
Banzragch also maintained more tangible aspects of her culture while studying abroad. On many days, Anand, her son, and Nomin ate Happy Meals, but Banzragch tried to, at least once a week, cook them a traditional Mongolian dish like khuushuur or buuz. It was primarily a small community of about five or six other Mongolians who advised Banzragch during her first year in New York, on everything from how to manage health insurance to which Ikea to buy furniture from in New Jersey.
Being a Mongolian, and in particular, being a Mongolian who had grown up under socialism, had a significant impact on the way in which she experienced Columbia, Banzragch says.
At Columbia, Banzragch studied economics and education in a joint degree program with the Teachers College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Growing up in a planned economy and having spent all of her adult life in a transition economy as Mongolia struggled to privatize land, livestock, and almost everything else, Banzragch offered a different perspective in her economics classrooms, which were usually full of students from capitalist countries.
“Sometimes, something different changes, because this economics model has realistic assumptions that didn’t foresee something very important that might happen to the model outcome,” Banzragch explains, discussing her outlook on the economic theories she met in class. “I live it. I know. I experience it on my skin and bones, so I can contribute. I saw it sometimes.”
As one of only few Mongolians studying abroad and the only Mongolian enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Columbia that year, Banzragch felt a responsibility to succeed that, she says, may not have been as weighty for some of her classmates.
“I knew that if I couldn’t do it – this program – it will be the end for me, she says. “I will come back, eventually, to my home country. I will start to teach… but some people will tell me, ‘She couldn’t do that. She failed’, or something. I didn’t want that.”
Banzragch wasn’t just going to Columbia for herself; she was doing it for her country too. She first realized this in 2008 when, after she spoke at Columbia’s World Leaders Forum, then-president Nambaryn Enkhbayar met her at a reception following his speech.
Enkhbayar told her to do well at Columbia so that he could come back and do good for her country.
“Then I thought, yeah, I’m representing the country also, not only myself or not only my family, not only my economics department, also the entire country,” Banzragch recalls. “I should do good.”
On her graduation day, “When that President Bollinger was giving his famous speech, I was thinking, yeah, I did it, and I can be proud for Mongolians that we’re somehow very small – three million people – but someone from the country came and got enrolled, admitted, and passed all these exams. I felt very proud of Mongolia.”
Banzragch hasn’t lived in Khuvsgul since she was a child, but she can still milk cows. She can still ride horses, make aaruul, urum and curds. She can cut wood with an axe and make soup from dried beef. After Columbia, she is still very much a Mongolian, but Banzragch says it was only by being in New York that she came to appreciate her Mongolian identity.
“Before going to Columbia University, before living in such a huge city, I didn’t realize the importance of my experience of being Mongolian. I didn’t care. Maybe at that time I wished I was an American because Americans seem [to] have a very nice, easygoing life,” Banzragch says. “After Columbia, now I realize that I’m lucky that I was born in Mongolia.”
These days, as a professor of economics and dean of the graduate school at the National University of Mongolia, Banzragch sees a lot of students from the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky, and she tells them that their future is boundless. Banzragch’s daughter, Nomin, aspires to study at Columbia for a master’s degree.
“[Columbia], it took something out of you,” Banzragch says. “It has a meaning. I started to sleep less. My hair starts to [turn] gray. All of this is cost, but after everything was done, I told myself that now, I can do anything.”