An engineer with experience studying abroad, Byambajargal Ayushjav discovered by accident that she also had a knack for teaching. With the Faro Foundation, she aims to expand education in her native Mongolia.
About a decade ago, Byambajargal Ayushjav agreed to meet a friend at a cafe in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, not just for coffee, but to prepare for the friend’s upcoming English exams. The friend couldn’t have sought out a more well-qualified tutor.
Byambajargal, or Bimja, had made good use of her youth and schooling, not only excelling in academics, but also studying abroad in Cuba, Germany and China, where she mastered Spanish, English and Chinese. She completed her mechanical and renewable engineering degree, respectively, and later, went to work for an international engineering firm.
As she helped her friend at the cafe that day, their conversation caught the ear of a fellow customer, who asked Bimja if she could also help her with her upcoming English exams. Bimja agreed, and her assistance soon garnered a favorable reputation, with requests for more frequent tutoring.
With a laugh, she said, "These people eventually became my first clients. They started bringing their kids, and then another friend offered to be my manager and soon enough, we opened the Faro Education Foundation, the first NGO of its type in Mongolia.
"But I didn’t, or don’t, see it as a business," she adds. "I just loved teaching."
Faro, in Spanish, means lighthouse. The idea, explained Bimja, is that the education center serves as a beacon and guide to those wishing to learn more, particularly in terms of improving their English language skills, but increasingly, too – and in partnership today with DW Akademie – in Media and Information Literacy, or MIL, a skillset to boost the public’s understanding of challenges presented by today's free flow of communication – especially via Social Media in a sparsely populated country like Mongolia.
"Imagine that, for many years, Facebook had not a single staff speaking or understanding Mongolian," said Patrick Benning, DW Akademie's Program Director in Mongolia, "which is why, in fact, the network was unable to manage or moderate local content."
Until, that is, Facebook found Bimja who agreed to become FB's in-country point of contact and honorary representative. And then DW Akademie found her, too, and saw an opportunity to cooperate on MIL projects.
Byambajargal Ayushjav, founder of Faro Foundation Mongolia NGO, as a keynote speaker at the 4th National MIL Forum
This week, UNESCO is observing the importance of Media and Information Literacy, during its annual Global MIL Week, which has been celebrated since 2011. This year's conference was to be held in Amman, Jordan, but has been postponed due to the situation in neighboring Israel. Still, the MIL event is a reminder for both Faro and DW Akademie of how mutual and beneficial the cooperation has become in just three years.
"Bimja turned out to be really open-minded, without any prejudice, and independent in her analysis, which I found really outstanding," said Benning. "She understood our case and our aim, which is to unite for the sake of MIL expansion. And this partnership continues today."
This aligned with Bimja’s perception, too.
"There is so much propaganda out there and very little instruction [on how to recognize it] in Mongolian schools," she said. "Media play a pivotal role in shaping society. It’s not just an information source but a powerful influence on our perceptions, beliefs, and behaviors."
Education, she continued, is actually an expensive solution in terms of time, effort and infrastructure, but civil society is contingent upon a well-informed electorate.
Ulziibuyan Otgonbayar, a Faro Foundation MIL trainer, during the MIL training at school 120 in an Ulaanbataar suburb.
"It’s supposed to be a democratizing mechanism because everyone has the right to [attend] school," she said. "But Mongolia is a vast country with a small population that is spread across it, and it is hard to reach people in rural areas."
Faro’s commitment to train teachers mirrored DW Akademie’s interest to work in this field, said Benning.
"Just three years ago, instructors would travel hundreds of kilometers across the country to introduce the new topic of MIL to schoolteachers. Since then, Faro, DWA, and other like-minded partners have developed a digital MIL curriculum, ready to be shared via a government-run learning platform, and to qualify thousands of teachers across the country."
At the same time, said Bimja, the Faro Foundation’s courses have been taught to about 50,000 students, and today, there are 1,500 teachers who instruct them. Courses range from passwords and protecting privacy, to fact-checking and expanding into MIL.
Teaching MIL to students with diverse backgrounds in different parts of Mongolia can be challenging, she said.
"But, we adjust and improve our curriculum to better suit the needs of students in each area," she continued. "For instance, we often adapt our teaching materials by incorporating relevant local trends to make the content more engaging for students in their specific locations."
For DW Akademie, the partnership has been fortunate.
"Faro and us, we were both lucky, or more than lucky," said Benning. "It was the best win-win situation we could have imagined for implementing MIL in Mongolia."
DW Akademie's MIL project in Mongolia is part of a media development country program (2021-23) funded by Germany's Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).