Taconic High grad tours Mongolia, other foreign lands as part of Harvard studies



This past summer I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel to Mongolia, Indonesia and also Morocco through my studies and extracurricular work at Harvard University.

My major at Harvard is earth and planetary sciences. This summer, I was invited to conduct geological research with a team of undergraduates, graduate students and professors from both Harvard and the Mongolian University of Science and Technology (MUST).

In Mongolia, the best research areas are far from civilization, so we had to camp to avoid long travel every day. By doing this, we were able to live on the Mongolian grassland, among the local people who live in mobile, temporary houses called gers. Oftentimes, I felt more like an anthropologist than a geologist, because we were constantly invited by families into their gers to share a cup of milk tea (a local delicacy).

I spent the entire month of June working on research seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day. Although it was physically and, at times when the science was unclear, mentally challenging, it was an experience I wouldn't trade for the world.

My time in Mongolia was academically productive, but what was special for me was the close exposure to a new culture I knew so little of.

After spending a lot of time in Mongolia with the people, my impression is that most of the country has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years. Though there is major economic expansion in the cities, especially Ulaanbaatar, the capital, it has not yet affected those living on the steppe or up north in the mountains. The people in the country live in the same way they always have -- their lives revolve around caring for livestock in a harsh desert climate. For me, it was an incredibly unique experience to see a place so frozen in time.

After my month in Mongolia, I flew straight to Jakarta, Indonesia for the second component of my summer travel. Amazingly, I received the opportunity to fulfill an internship at Forbes Magazine through my work in the Harvard International Review (HIR). Although I am studying something very removed from journalism, it has always been a passion of mine, tracing all the way back to my high school Shadow Day internship at The Berkshire Eagle. The current editor at Forbes Magazine in Indonesia is a Harvard alumnus, who was editor-in-chief of the HIR during college.

My work at Forbes ended up being the best internship I could have dreamed of. Through research for my articles, I was able to meet incredibly interesting and talented people in Indonesia, as well as travel all over the archipelago. Unlike in Mongolia, the people in Jakarta are being thrust into the modern era.

Though I had somewhat of a culture shock traveling from one of the least-densely populated countries in the world to the 13th-largest city in the world, it was exciting to see how the people of Indonesia are responding to the new economic prosperity and opportunity. I was able to interact with successful entrepreneurs, politicians, environmental activists, among others and discuss everything from political corruption and the expected outcome of the next presidential election to forest "jungle" fires and fuel subsidies.

Indonesia also is home to some of the most naturally beautiful places I've ever been, including the jungle in Sumatra, where I was hugged by a wild orangutan. The beaches of Bali are similarly spectacular, and I surfed there for the first time -- well, I attempted to anyway.

At Forbes, I was given the freedom to write almost anything I wanted, which really allowed me to dive into my diverse academic interests in a way that I often don't get to at school. I learned so much while I was there, not only from research but from my interactions and conversations with locals. It ended up being one of the best professional experiences I could hope for despite the fact that it didn't appear to be in line with the trajectory I had set up for myself in college.

In addition, I was able to save up money I had made from the summer to stop for a week in Morocco on the way back to the United States, which also was a valuable cultural experience. No weeklong vacation compares to spending an extended period of time in a country. I am extremely grateful for the opportunities I had this summer to immerse myself in two very different cultures.

Not only did I learn an incredible amount, but I feel as though my world view has been broadened. I would do this sort of summer again in a heartbeat -- so long as there is a little more time in the Berkshires scheduled in.

The author of this article is currently studying at Harvard University and is a 2011 graduate/valedictorian of Taconic High School in Pittsfield. To read more of Sarah Moon's work with the Harvard International Review, visit http://hir.harvard.edu.


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