The Oberlin Stories Project

On changing the world, one book at a time

Anita Fahrni ’65

“After returning, I started to collect, sort and send books. Within 10 years, over 220,000 books would find their way from my garage to libraries throughout Mongolia!”

Anita with a group of young women in Mongolia

My interest in Asia began at Oberlin in the Shansi program. For over a century, Shansi has facilitated exchanges between students and professors to China, Japan, Indonesia and India. As a student, I worked on the Shansi Student Committee, helped select Oberlin Shansi Reps, and visited Oberlin friends teaching at Tunghai University in Taiwan.

After graduating, I took a job in California but left after a year to teach French and English in Taiwan. Thirty years later, a colleague from those wonderful years at Tunghai who knew that I networked with women worldwide suggested I go to Mongolia. The objective of my five-week visit in 1998 was to contact local women and learn about their situation. Ten years later, a growing educational exchange has changed and enriched lives in both Switzerland and Mongolia.

In 1998, a short decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, systems had collapsed in Mongolia as well. Most factories and socialist communes had closed, driving unemployment to extremes. The new democracy was struggling. The educational system, which had once taught almost 100% of the largely nomadic population to read and write, had no material or funding. Books were rare.

In Switzerland, books are abundant, many catching dust on shelves in schools or homes. On returning from Mongolia, I started to collect, sort and send books to schools and universities in Ulaanbaatar and other cities. Little did I expect that within 10 years, over 220,000 books would find their way from my garage to libraries throughout Mongolia!

As English became Mongolian’s first foreign language, schools to which I had sent books began asking me to send teachers. Most Mongolian teachers of English or German wanted help from native speakers for correct pronunciation and conversational use. And on the Swiss side, young and not-so-young people were attracted by the challenge of teaching in a spectacularly beautiful and fascinating land, even under difficult conditions.

Nearly 90 of “my” Swiss and American volunteers taught in schools and universities in five different regions. With ages ranging from 20 to 65, they tested their powers of adaptation, improvisation, and communication. Though it was tough, no one regrets having made the effort; some have returned to Mongolia or stayed longer than planned. Seven of “my people” are teaching in Mongolia right now.

Each summer, from 2003 to 2006, I invited two Mongolian teachers of German to spend the month of July to attend courses for Swiss teachers, to improve their language skills and to experience life here. In 2005, the rector of the new Pedagogical University in Thurgau accepted two Mongolian students of German for one whole academic year. Due to the quality of the students, the exchange at this professional level has been a complete success. The Swiss students profit from the contacts as well: thanks to the friendships thus formed some Swiss graduates decide to venture to Mongolia to teach.

Now, eight young Mongolian women study in four Pedagogical Universities (in Kreuzlingen, Rorschach, Zug and Zurich) with a ninth at the Cantonal Middle School in Frauenfeld. Each woman will return to her home country a more mature and independent person, with excellent language skills, new ideas about teaching methods, and a broadened horizon. Countless host families welcome the students into their families for several months, free of charge, to make this wonderful opportunity possible.

More could be written: about the Mongolian teachers of English doing internships at the International School of Berne, or about the networks built up in Switzerland and in Mongolia, or about the tons of educational material sent to orphanages, mobile libraries, ministries and the Arts Council. A lot has been accomplished in the past 10 years. The workload is heavy (and unpaid) but the rewards are great! Oberlin graduates would be very welcome as teachers for the program.