ETSU unveils traditional Mongolian ger as latest addition to Valleybrook Niswonger Village

Zach Vance • Updated Apr 16, 2019 at 8:36 PM

KINGSPORT — A little piece of Mongolia can now be found in the rolling hills of Northeast Tennessee.

On Tuesday, East Tennessee State University administrators unveiled their newest lab, an authentic Mongolian ger, for students to simulate real-life public and global health situations.

The traditional round Mongolian dwelling, similar to a tent, was showcased during a special event about Mongolian culture and history at the ETSU Valleybrook campus.

Jonathan Addleton, former U.S. ambassador to Mongolia and current executive director for the American Center for Mongolian Studies, spoke at the event about Mongolian relations with the United States and how the relationship has evolved over the years.

“It’s kind of like walking into a ger in the countryside of Mongolia,” Addleton said about the ger at the Valleybrook Niswonger VILLAGE. 

VILLAGE is an acronym for Virtual International Living and Learning Across Global Environments.

“I think it’s good for people to get a sense of living in a ger. It is unique because Mongolia is unique. It’s a great classroom for students to experience for the first time.”

Another special guest at Tuesday’s event was Richard Kortum, an ETSU professor emeritus, who spoke about spending several summers in the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia researching and documenting prehistoric petroglyphs.

Theresa Markiw, a former public affairs officer for the U.S. Embassy in Mongolia, said the majority of herding families in Mongolia prefer living in gers because it provides ease of mobility.

Gers are relatively light with the frames made of wooden lattice and thin wooden poles. Felt fabric is then draped around the frame and across the top. The haalga, or door, to the ger is always directed south.

Randy Wykoff, dean of the College of Public Health, said the university has been trying to get acquire a Mongolian ger since 2012 and 2013.

“This is a genuine one from Mongolia, so we’re pleased to have it,” he said.

Michael Stoots, an undergraduate coordinator in the College of Public Health, and students at the Valleybrook campus were responsible for building the replica ger, spanning 20 feet in diameter. He said it took roughly eight hours to piece together. 

The Mongolian ger is now the seventh replica at the Valleybrook Niswonger VILLAGE modeled on actual dwellings from across the globe. Other replicas are modeled after dwellings in South Africa, Nicaragua, UNICEF refugees camps and even homeless camps in the United States.

“I think adding the ger really does add an emphasis on internationalism. That’s been important,” Wilsie Bishop, ETSU senior vice president for academics, said.

“We have students and faculty who go all over the world now, learn about health care issues and how people live. You really can’t address issues with their health if you don’t understand their culture and how they live.”

The Niswonger VILLAGE allows students to learn in environments that replicate how people live and work in low-resource settings.

“Niswonger VILLAGE is a pioneering public health platform that creates scenarios where students can use their skills in real-world settings,” Wykoff said.

“The new Mongolian ger is a representation of a truly unique way of nomadic living, where they are able to take down the structure, move it, and set it up in a day in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Our students can use this replica to study the health challenges faced by people who live nomadic lifestyles.”

ETSU’s Project EARTH curriculum teaches students how to make tools, such as water filters, composting latrines and field hand-washing stations, in low-resource settings or during natural or man-made disasters for a healthier life. 

“We teach a lot of perspective,” Stoots said. 

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