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A Little Missouri in Mongolia: Arrigo teaching English to teachers overseas

Posted on Monday, May 14, 2018 at 8:35 am

Arrigo enjoying the local lifestyle on the Mongolian steppe.

Moscow Mills native Jeff Arrigo is not your average English teacher. As an English Language Fellow for the U.S. Department of State, Arrigo lives and works in Mongolia, crisscrossing that massive land to spread American culture and share English-teaching skills.

Arrigo graduated from Troy Buchanan High School in 1985 and earned a degree in elementary education at Central Methodist University in Fayette. Then he made a change.

“I decided to seek out opportunities to exchange my labor to spend time in a new part of the world,” he reflected recently.

Arrigo became a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay and, in the years that followed, went on to teach in South Korea, China, and Turkey. After completing  a master’s degree in TESOL at Southeast Missouri State in 2011, Arrigo taught at the University of Illinois, then applied to and was accepted for the elite English Language Fellow Program.

Arrigo has since faced the unique challenge of teaching in the world’s most sparsely populated country. Providing teacher training to Mongolian educators has taken him from Choibalsan in the far east to Khovd in the distant west—akin to the span from San Antonio to Chicago. Arrigo, though, relishes traveling hundreds of miles for a five-hour workshop, his guitar and sense of adventure in tow.

“Whether it’s I-70 or the middle of the Gobi Desert, when you travel, you get the unexpected, and the best thing to do is improvise,” he says.

Arrigo remembers spending an evening in a local herding family’s ger (what we would call a yurt), “eating, drinking, caring for the animals, and sharing stories. It was just amazing and heartwarming.”

He had his own traditional Mongolian clothes (a.k.a., a deel) made so he could spend Tsagaan Sar (a.k.a., Mongolian lunar new year) celebrating with local families.

“First, you greet and pay respect to the elders by holding their forearms and touching each side of their forehead with your forehead,” Arrigo reports. After that, it’s a plate of Mongolian dumplings, or buuz. A plate of dumplings is no problem, he says, “because they’re small—but if you visit two or three families in one day, you become overly stuffed.” And finally, there are the rounds—usually three—of toasting with vodka or whiskey.

Arrigo takes a realistic view when summing up his experience: like life in Missouri, life in Mongolia has its ups and downs.

“At times I have been lonely, uncomfortable, frustrated, and challenged,” Arrigo admits. “But working with Mongolians, especially the local teachers, has been wonderful and rewarding. Regardless of what people say, we’re not really all the same, and sometimes the cultural differences can seem daunting. However, the amount that we are the same makes bridging those differences possible.”

The English Language Fellow Program

U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs:

The English Language Fellow Program recruits both experienced English language professionals and recent master’s graduates trained in English as a foreign language and English as a second language. As Fellows, they travel abroad and assist with the improvement of English-teaching capacity around the world, with the ultimate goal of fostering a better understanding of the United States through cross-cultural partnerships. Fellows are placed at universities, teacher-training institutions, ministries of education, and NGOs for ten-month assignments abroad to assist in the teaching of English at all levels, curriculum development, workshop and seminar design, and program evaluation, among other things. The program is administered by the Center for Intercultural Education and Development at Georgetown University.

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