Notes from the Field

For Mongolia’s Rural Girls, University Education Often Out of Reach, Until Now

June 8, 2011

As university students across Mongolia complete final exams this week, 60 girls at two of the top universities in the country came together over the weekend to look back at their first year as recipients of Merali Scholarships.

Mongolia student

In September 2010, after a competitive application process, The Asia Foundation, in partnership with the Zorig Foundation, selected the first group of of scholarship recipients. Photo by Matthew Pendergast.

Completing freshman exams represents the culmination of a remarkable year for these students, most of whom did not know if they would be able to attend university at this time last year. This also marked the first time that many of these girls from Mongolia’s countryside have lived on their own, and certainly in the busy capital, Ulaanbaatar.

In Mongolia, only 55 percent of students (45 percent in rural areas) complete upper secondary education. Only 35 percent of students are able to continue their studies and enroll in higher education. Population increases in Ulaanbaatar, and great distances in the vast country, combined with poor infrastructure and seasonal challenges in rural areas, make it more difficult to provide quality education to all children. In the winter and spring of 2010, the country experienced a dzud – a national disaster unique to Mongolia with a drought in summer followed by a severe winter with heavy snow and extreme cold. As a result, more than 8 million livestock died, accounting for almost 20 percent of the nation’s herds. For the one-third of the population that relies on herding for their livelihoods, the situation was devastating. More than 9,000 families lost their entire herd of livestock, and thousands more experienced a reduction of more than 50 percent in herd size. For these families, and the growing number of unemployed in Ulaanbaatar, paying university tuition for their children is just not possible.

During the summer of 2010, the Shirin Pandju Merali Foundation established a university scholarship program for Mongolian women. The program is implemented jointly by The Asia Foundation and its local partner, the Zorig Foundation. After a highly competitive selection process (286 applicants), the program provided scholarships to these 60 girls from low-income families to attend university for four years at the National University of Mongolia (NUM) and the Mongolian University of Science and Technology (MUST). The program is unique in Mongolia as it is for all four years of university study, specifically for girls, and mostly for girls enrolling in science fields. Trained and skilled workers in sciences, an area largely underrepresented by women in Mongolia, are key to the country’s development, which is predominately focused on the minerals sector. As several of the world’s largest mines begin development, and major infrastructure projects get underway, the need for educated staff in these fields is higher than ever.

One of the recipients, Odgerel, currently attends MUST and is a member of the student association. Her father passed away when she was young, and her mother repairs train tracks for the railway company, forcing her family to have moved around several times. She currently lives with her older sister in a basement room below an apartment building in Ulaanbaatar. Her sister used to attend university, but dropped out due to financial reasons and is now working as a waitress.

For the past three summers, Odgerel has helped a family herd cattle and, in return, the family purchases her school supplies for high school. When she was about to start university, her mother told her that she had saved enough money for one year of tuition fees, but that it would be not be possible to pay after the first year. She worked extremely hard this year, earning a 3.94 GPA her first semester. Now, thanks to the Merali Scholarship Program, Odgerel can put aside worries over raising next year’s tuition, and focus on preparing for her last exam.

Josh Friedman is The Asia Foundation’s program development & coordination manager in Mongolia. He can be reached at jfriedman@asiafound.org.

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