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Student Ben Sutton’s journey of self-discovery and overcoming in Mongolia

College of Idaho student Ben Sutton looked out the window as the car drove past sprawling Mongolian countryside—an endless ocean of rolling green waves stretched to meet the azure blue horizon. In the distance, a nomad and his horse slowly rose from the grassy sea. Sutton commented to his companions that he’d never ridden a Mongolian horse. Expressions of shock were uttered as the car pulled over and stopped.

Sutton meandered over to the nomad. A cigarette hung from the corner of his mustached mouth. He sported a beanie standing straight up on his head, faded sun glasses and a brown coat that told the tale of many a cold Mongolian winter with every soft wrinkle. Sutton asked if he could ride the chocolate brown horse, actually more of a pony in size. The nomad obliged. Sutton climbed aboard as the nomad slowly trotted the horse about 200 yards. Sutton thought to himself, ‘This is lame. I want to really ride the horse.’

The nomad read his mind. Without warning, he dropped the reigns and slapped the horse on the rear—the spark which ignited the creature to shoot off like a cannon ball.

“I saw my life flash before my very eyes,” Sutton said. “I was holding on for dear life. I cannot describe how afraid I was.”

The horse eventually turned around, without losing speed, and starting running back toward his master. Coming to a stop, a terrified Sutton carefully dismounted. As he did so, the horse turned its head and bit him. Resisting the urge to smack another man’s horse, Sutton slowly backed away. But not before the horse turned around and kicked him in the thigh.

His companions laughed as Sutton, in pain, staggered away before the horse could inflict more damage.

Sutton’s experience riding Mongolia’s friendliest horse serves as a metaphor for his trip studying abroad in the fall of 2015, but in reverse. A week before he traveled to Asia, Sutton learned his internship had fallen to pieces. He had been bitten and kicked after months of preparation. But after holding on for dear life, Sutton turned the situation into an enjoyable ride.

EASTWARD BOUND

Part of what drove Sutton to study abroad in Mongolia was the romanticism of the mystical country—meandering rivers, snowcapped mountains, yurts and nomads driving their livestock through expansive valleys. For his internship, he expected to teach English and take classes at the Mongolian State University of Arts and Culture. He worked hard to develop a basic curriculum with help from the education department on the C of I campus.

Then came the fateful email in August. The university stated it couldn’t offer him the internship or classes until January. Mere days before he was supposed to leave, Sutton was devastated.

He’d prepared to study abroad for the last five months. He quit his job and trained his replacement. He prepared himself mentally to leave his fiancé and six-year-old daughter. He’d trusted other people and stepped out of his comfort zone.

At that moment, Sutton had two choices: go on the trip and make something out of nothing or waste all the resources he’d already put in.

There were people who told Sutton to count his losses. But his father and his C of I advisor, political economy professor Dr. Robert Dayley, encouraged him to go on the trip anyway. If Sutton couldn’t find an internship with an organization abroad after a few weeks, he could still make it back in time for the fall semester at C of I.

“So he polished up his resume and went over there on his own,” Dayley said.

Two days before Sutton left, Dayley gave him a little nugget of wisdom. If Sutton found an internship, and the company liked his work, they probably wouldn’t be happy with only four months and would want him to stay. And the offer might be interesting.

“I told him, at that point, you’re going to have to make a decision, so you might want to make a decision now,” Dayley said. “And just be prepared for them to ask you that, because you still have a semester to come back and graduate.”

With suitcase and passport in hand, and knowing there wasn’t going to be any support on the ground in Mongolia, Sutton flew into the storm.

DOOR-TO-DOOR

Sutton gave himself three weeks to find an internship. Walking the streets of Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar, with resume in hand, he went door-to-door trying to convince businesses to give him a shot. That task was made harder as Mongolia doesn’t have an address system like the United States. Plus, any sign was in Mongolian.

“There were definitely moments where you’d feel very isolated and you realize that you’re completely on your own,” Sutton said. “Part of that is freeing as well because you’ve been stripped down to your basic abilities and your basic skill sets. And you have to rely and depend on those to find some sort of successful endeavor, or fail.”

In what he described as rapid-fire interviews, Sutton used his broad liberal arts skillset to wear various hats and convince organizations he wasn’t some lunatic foreigner with devious, ulterior motives.

The political economy major visited organizations such as the Asia Foundation, The Open Society Forum and the U.N. office, and had the chance to intern with any of them. But he chose Sant Maral, a nonprofit organization that provides public opinion research through polls and studies.

And his first meeting with the director of Sant Maral, Sumati Luvsandenev, was memorable to say the least.

Barging into Sumati’s office (Mongolians mostly go by their first name only) Sutton looked around at a conference table full of what looked like important people.

“There is this awkward moment, where I’m like, ‘Crap. First impressions mean everything,’” Sutton said. “I look like an idiot right now, I’m holding a resume, and I’m obviously some white, clueless foreigner.”

Sutton preceded to wait for the director outside his office. When the meeting concluded, the director came out. He looked Sutton over suspiciously, and proceeded to go to the bathroom.

Judging the pros and cons of the moment, Sutton decided to follow the director into the men’s room. There, among the urinals and stalls, Sutton pitched why the director should give him an internship.

“About halfway through the conversation…we kind of had this moment where we’re like, ‘This is very awkward,’” Sutton said. “So I apologized, said, ‘this is completely inappropriate,’ and asked if he wanted me to wait outside the restroom. He was like, ‘yeah, that’d be nice.’”

The perseverance paid off. The organization asked Sutton when he could start after looking over his resume.

There was only one company rule Sutton’s new boss made him comply with: no one shows up to work before 10 a.m.

So, showing up at the early hour of 10 a.m., Sutton would daily check emails, go to group meetings and work on the STOPP survey, the organization’s biggest project of the year. The survey looks at private perceptions of corruption within the business environment in Ulaanbaatar. The survey was done in conjunction with the Australian government and The Asia Foundation.

Sutton leaned on his political economy skills to analyze data, look for trends and points of interest, and connect them to any government or business news. As the project went on, Sutton primarily edited and formatted the final report.

“I’m impressed with Ben’s tenacity to be unafraid of failure and make the best out of his situation,” said Jennifer Riddle, director of the C of I’s Center for Experiential Learning. “He embodies what we want our students to be—responsible, resourceful and resilient.”

VODKA CULTURE

While he worked late evenings and weekends in order to prove himself an asset to the company, Sutton’s director enabled him to fully experience Mongolia. Several times, he traveled outside of the urban capital with its congestion, traffic and pollution and into the wide open spaces with nomads, herds and blue sky.

On one such trip, Sutton viewed mines, cloaked as an investor in order to gain information. Or, at least that’s what his director told him.

Climbing aboard a bus with 30 other investors, Sutton traveled treacherous Mongolian roads to the country’s second- and third-biggest cities. A total of 1.5 million people reside in Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia’s second-largest city has 70,000 residents and the third has 50,000.

Sutton started noticing a trend early on in his trip. At lunch, everyone had a shot of vodka to go with a toast. Not much of a drinker, Sutton decided to oblige and go along with the custom. At dinner, hosted by a mining company, about 10 toasts were given. And more shots were taken. After each toast, a server would quickly refill his glass.

“So, I look around and I’m the only fool taking these shots,” he said. “People are just sipping. That’s when I learned the prevalence of vodka culture there.”

Fast forward to the 10-hour bus trip home. Everyone was tired as they’d stayed up late at banquets every night. But heavy eyelids couldn’t stop the appearance of six bottles of vodka. And further toasts were made—toasts for health, for family, and more. Traditional folk songs were sung, about 30 of them. Two hours into the bus trip, everyone was wasted, but luckily not the bus driver, who only took one shot.

“It was beautiful because I was completely immersed in the music, the joyfulness and the culture,” Sutton said.

Eight hours into the trip, the drunken karaoke had stopped. Everybody had passed out. Well, everybody except the bus driver and Sutton, who stayed awake for the remainder of the trip. It was a fun experience—in hindsight—he said.

Listen to a traditional Mongolian folk song Sutton recorded during the bus trip, and view some of his photos.

HOMEWARD BOUND

In December, Sutton stuffed his clothes back into his suitcase to fly home. During his four months abroad, Mongolia had etched out a little piece of his heart. His personal journey of self-discovery, a horse ride, bus trips, and new relationships all left their marks. Sumati and his wife became Sutton’s Mongolian parents. They took him out to dinner four times per week. He spent Thanksgiving dinner at a Chinese restaurant, feasting on the traditional holiday dish of pig ear with them. In his final goodbye photo, Sutton had a grin from ear to ear, while his Mongolian friends stood dead-faced.

“A little known fact: Mongolians have never once smiled in a photo and I doubt ever will smile in a photo,” Sutton said.

While the internship was not what he’d expected, it turned out to be more closely related to his political economy major than his original plan. It even sparked an interest in empirical testing, quantitative research, and experimentation. Sutton took a field research methods class and advanced statistics this spring—classes that aren’t his forte, but another challenge to overcome.

And just as Dayley predicted, Sutton was offered a permanent position at Sant Maral. That offer was left on the table as Sutton returned home.

“The door is still open,” he said. “They want me to come back to work for them.”

More than anything else, Sutton’s experience in Mongolia taught him how to overcome, no matter the situation. A lot of people have commented that he’s changed since his time abroad, though they can’t specify why, Sutton said. He does recognize that the little things have become unimportant to him. His focus is on life’s tough challenges. And they are nothing more than that—simply challenges.

“If you can be tenacious, if you can persevere through some hardships—and you believe in yourself—combined with that knowledge and skill set that you gain from a school like the C of I, you’ll succeed,” Sutton said. “And I’m saying 10 out of 10 times you’ll succeed.”

The College of Idaho has a 125-year-old legacy of excellence. The C of I is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, four NFL players and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom.  For more information, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.