Corey Benov, '10: The Thrill of the Unknown
A degree from Carolina can certainly take you anywhere. Not being afraid to leave his comfort zone has taken Corey Benov beyond a few time zones in the United States to a world most of us would never dream of seeing in person. The Illinois native has spent the last two years in Mongolia with the Peace Corps. His life since graduation could be considered distance learning or continuing education in the truest sense, while making more friends than the average teenager does on Facebook.
“I hope someday to say I have a friend from every country on the planet,” Corey says. “How cool would that be? We have so much to learn from each other, and a lifetime isn't near long enough to even scratch the surface.”
Seeing New Places
Corey Benov lived his entire life in a Northwest suburb of Chicago called Barrington until coming to the University of South Carolina on a scholarship as part of the Capstone Scholar program.
“I had a long list of what I wanted to be when I grew up, but no career choice of certainty,” Corey says. “After dabbling in psychology my sophomore year, which was and still is an interest of mine, I settled on a degree in business because of the Moore School of Business’ standing among business schools in the nation and after advice from my father on how diverse the job market could be for a business major. I finally settled on a double major in marketing and management and managed to finish in 4 years.”
His best memories from his days on campus all involve the sun, as well as friends made, watching Gamecock football, and playing on the Carolina rugby team.
“Something that I had zero knowledge of was the community I became a part of when I took up rugby,” Corey says. “The friends, comradeship, and satisfaction I got from playing a sport like rugby are easily the best part of playing rugby and still are to this day.”
The sense of adventure and camaraderie would continue in his life off the rugby pitch. About a year after graduation, Corey took this sense of community to the next level and found his calling in the United States Peace Corps. He was placed and sent to Mongolia as a business-development volunteer.
“Since meeting a PCV (Peace Corps volunteer) abroad when I was young and attending a meeting with a returned Peace Corps volunteer on campus my freshman year, I knew that I wanted to do the Peace Corps at some time in my life,” Corey says. “I wanted to do it after college because I knew it would be a good time for a ‘bridge’ period in my life after learning so much about myself at Carolina.”
His personal reasons for committing to the Peace Corps included a love for travel, an interest in learning from other people's culture, and the hope that he could somehow help those less fortunate. Federal service was also very high on his priority list.
“To most PCVs, federal service is not high up on the list of reasons to apply,” Corey says. “However, it is and was for me, and I continue to be very mindful of the impression I am leaving on the people I meet as being perhaps the only American they may meet. I believe in serving one's country, and the PC was a way I felt I would best share my life experiences, skills and knowledge, and at the same time continue to grow personally and professionally.”
A Different World
Since arriving in June of 2011, Corey has spent 17 months living in a city of about 10,000 in the Gobi desert after two months of language and job training, living with a Mongolian family.
“I work with several local and international NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) in the community that primarily focus on small-enterprise development,” Corey says. "I have approximately eight months to go, and I can say with absolutely honesty that I am having a good time. They say the Peace Corps is the hardest job you will ever leave, and I already know it to be true. When this experience is finished, I hope to think of two things. One involves the past and the people I got to know, the culture I embraced, the work and progress I completed, and the country I fell in love with. The second is the future and the fact that I know that my new life in the United States will be one filled my more patience, love, honesty, hard work, appreciation, happiness, confidence, peace, and excitement, just to name a few.”
The best part of his experiences in other countries has been the new cultures and people from which he has had the opportunity to learn.
“When one stays in their sheltered or comfortable community, one loses the ability to see things from another's view, see what is really special in their life, or see what they take for granted,” Corey says. “I realized this even by going to school in a different region of the U.S., and that fact is magnified in another country.”
As you might expect, there are times when he longs to be home.
“I love the food I have been able to try, but this also leads to one of the worst parts of being in another country,” Corey says. “Whether you know it or not, leaving home for an extended amount of time leaves one craving for the simplest of comfort foods of their youth or earlier years. I think about the variety of food in America a lot. However, the real worst part about living abroad is being separated from your friends and family. I have made more new friends that I can count during my times abroad and especially in Mongolia, but nothing makes up for your friends and family back home.”
Surprisingly, the language barrier has never been a bad part for him in his experiences. While he knows few people with whom he can speak English on a conversational level, he is giving it his absolute all to learn Mongolian and now functions on a near advanced conversational level.
“My goal is to have a superior grasp of the language when I leave,” Corey says. “Lofty, but not impossible when one is immersed in the language. This is the first language I have really dedicated time in learning, and I am having a wonderful time with it.”
Corey has not been home since his arrival in June of 2011. PCVs are given vacation time, but he has spent his time and money seeing other parts of Mongolia and Asia rather than going home.
There are some things that are familiar regardless of any language or other barriers, such as the game that he fell in love with in college.
“Luckily, I have been able to play a little bit of rugby,” Corey says. “I first found out there was rugby in Mongolia when I saw two kids walking down the street in Ulaanbaatar holding a rugby ball. I stopped them and found out there was a men’s team in Ulaanbaatar as well as several high-school teams in the city. After some internet research, I got a couple of email addresses and networked over Facebook and email. Eventually, I got in touch with some guys who played on the Mongolian National team and are very involved with developing rugby in Mongolia. Most of these guys had played in Europe while studying.”
Right around this time, they were having a friendly match with a men’s team that had come in from Hong Kong last summer. They invited Corey to play, and the timing for a game worked out with his job duties. A rugby festival was organized in Ulaanbaatar's Naadam stadium with three games, and Corey played in the final game with the national team against the Hong Kong Vandals.
“An unforgettable experience,” Corey says. “I have been talking with some guys on the team about organizing a rugby camp or club that will be designed to start interest in rugby in the countryside. Everything is really early, but who knows where it will lead?”
As for day-to-day life, the living accommodations would certainly raise a few eyebrows to those of us here in the United States, but Corey takes it all in stride.
“I live in a Mongolian ger with no running water or toilet, and I heat my home with a wood- and coal-burning stove,” Corey says. “I do have the luxury of what I consider fairly stable electricity, so that is nice.”
Mongolia has extreme temperature changes that make life a little difficult. In the Gobi desert, temperatures can range from as high as 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer to -40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter.
“Americans back home would be most surprised in that I think Mongolians are very similar to us,” Corey says. “Although shy at first, Mongolians warm up to you very quickly, are extremely hospitable, and are always interested in trying something new. They are also very patriotic like us. I think Americans would also be shocked at the vastness and emptiness of Mongolia. As the least populated per-square-mile country on the planet, you can go miles and miles without seeing any signs of life. For so many Americans living in cities, this would come off as very strange. I imagine Mongolia as the Old Wild West, although with a lot less guns.”
The cultural differences make up some of Corey's best experiences. With approximately one-third of all Mongolians still practicing a nomadic life style, he finds the nomadic culture and food interesting.
“I'm always amazed as to how little a herder family owns, but how they have everything they actually need,” Corey says. “When I first arrived, the food was a little bit of a shock. Even today, the lack of variety in a typical herder's diet astonishes me. Many herder men boast of their abilities to go entire days drinking nothing but the national drink of fermented horse milk. Culturally, Mongolians have an extremely heavy meat- and dairy-filled diet, the two most sensible and only possible types of food for an animal-herding culture on the move two or three times per year. Boiled innards or slices of pure fat make up the ingredients of many meals, and a lot of mutton as well. All the large pieces of boiled fat in food would make most Americans cringe, but it does keep a body warm in the winter.”
In some social settings, Corey can feel out of place, but not unwelcome.
“People’s reactions to me at first are pretty similar,” Corey says. “I get a lot of stares. Everywhere I go, people watch me. There are times when people stop to stare, point, or sometimes even snicker. I think I am learning what an attractive girl at a fraternity party might feel like. Stay strong, ladies. When people talk with me, there is a lot of talk about where I am from and why I am here. They are very curious as to why I want to live in Mongolia. However, after the initial awe or interest, everyone is very polite and friendly.”
Looking at his experience abroad as a whole, there is no doubt that the people with whom he has come in contact are the best part.
“I have met some amazing people over here, both Americans and Mongolians alike,” Corey says. “Most of the friends I am making over here have such similar interests and ambitions as I do. All the fellow PCVs understand what it means to leave your comfort zone and challenge yourself. The Peace Corps is hard, and I am developing strong bonds with the people I'm sharing this experience with. I like all the expats I have met because they also share some of my professional ambitions and understand what it means to think globally.”
He is also quick to note that the relationships formed with Mongolians are the most precious, but he fears they will also be the shortest term.
“Staying in contact with many people will be impossible, and so many others will be reserved to online or through mail,” Corey says. “I hope to see as many friends as possible from Mongolia in the United States, but I understand that life doesn't always work that way. Overall, I believe I am widening the degrees of separation between everyone in this world.”
With his time in Mongolia coming to a close in the early summer of 2013, Corey seems to not have any regrets about taking on such a challenge over the last two years.
“It’s hard to think about all the culture shocks because the entire culture is different from ours,” Corey says. “Almost no activity or thing is the same. It is all best summed up as one wild ride.”
If anyone would like to find out more about Mongolia, what it’s like to be a Peace Corps volunteer, or find out more about Corey’s life as a volunteer in Mongolia, he invites you to follow his blog at coreybenov.tumblr.com.