Mongolia to Malmö and back: one nomad’s tale

Malmö may be a long way from the steppes of Mongolia, but recent Malmö University graduate Chantsalnyam Luvsandorj, found herself inspired by both places.

Mongolia to Malmö and back: one nomad’s tale
Photo: Malmö University

Born in the Gobi Desert into a nomadic family, she didn’t know what a city was until the age of twelve and didn’t handle money until she was 15. Now Chantsalnyam Luvsandorj has graduated from Malmö University armed with an education to head back and help her native Mongolia.

On the eve of her recent graduation ceremony, Chantsalnyam recounts her remarkable tale of growing up in the extremes of Asia’s largest desert and explains how the rapid onset of globalisation led her to seek out an education in Sweden. 

The youngest of four children in a family that herded camels, sheep, goats and horses – Chantsalnyam and her siblings had to help out as soon as they were physically capable of doing so. It was a lifestyle that would lead her to where she is now, a graduate of the Leadership for Sustainability Master’s Programme.

“My childhood was spent surrounded by nature and the animals. As children, we were very autonomous because our parents were busy with work. Looking after animals is an endless job, there are no days off,” she explains.

Living in a yurt

By the age of five, Chantsalnyam was looking after baby animals and soon after was riding both horses and camels. She left her family at the age of eight to start school 60 kilometres away from where her family kept their herds.

“We went to the nearest village where there is a school and minimum infrastructure. It was me and my older brother who was nine and my older sister who was 14. We lived by ourselves in a small yurt for a term at a time,” she recalls.

“We took all our combustibles that we needed to cook and stay warm and were given all the meat and flour we needed to last us. We had no contact with our parents, they didn’t know if we were okay and we didn’t know if they were okay. All we knew is that daddy would be there on the last day of school to pick us up.”

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With temperatures dropping to -30 degrees C, Chantsalnyam and her siblings fetched water from a well and lived off the stored food. Keen to further her studies and excel, she eventually went to university to study linguistics.

“I knew how hard it was for our parents to be separated from their children so from a very young age I knew I wanted to study because I didn’t want my kids to be separated from me like I was from my parents,” she says.

Scholarships and sustainability

Having learned Russian and French, she found work with a French NGO based in Mongolia.

“I was good at languages. I started learning French without even knowing what France is! I knew there was a country called France, but nothing really else,” Chantsalnyam quips.

 “With the French NGO, I was in contact with lots of people from around the world and when I really realised the importance of nature, I started looking at it differently. I became aware of all the waste problems. Waste was new to the culture because we were used to dealing with only organic waste; but with globalisation, we had all of these products. With that came plastic bags and packaging and people were not used to it, so it is just got dropped into wild nature.”

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Inspired to take action, she applied to Malmö University with a Swedish Institute Scholarship to study sustainability more in-depth. By then, she was married with two children, but with her nomadic background, it was no big deal to move the entire family to Sweden for a year.

“It was an interesting topic for me, it spoke to me somehow and Sweden has a good reputation when it comes to sustainability,” she explains.

'I want to do everything'

While many people simply equate sustainability with the environment, Chantsalnyam quickly discovered that her programme at Malmö was “more than just that one dimension”.

“It covers a broader idea of sustainability, it involves how you can deal with the private sector, government organisations, social enterprises – it is very diverse,” she explains.

Chantsalnyam at home in Mongolia with one of her camels. Photo: Private

“Now I feel I have too many things to do in Mongolia, and I don’t know where to start! I have to choose – I want to do everything!”

Following her time at Malmö University, Chantsalnyam says she’s returning to her home country “inspired to be less passive”.

“I want to be more involved in working with youth, the future of the country,” she explains.

Chantsalnyam also hopes her country learns to be more self-reliant rather than having to “beg for money” from international donors.

“From this nomadic culture, we have this high capacity of adaptation and openness,” she adds.

And on that note, Chantsalnyam’s husband and two children arrive to witness her graduation ceremony. The following week they plan to travel to Belgium, and then onwards to France before their return to Mongolia.

Once a nomad, always a nomad. 

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This article was sponsored by Malmö University.


‘They feel conned’: Swedish universities fight for PHDs hit by new residency rules

Sweden's top universities are to call for doctoral students to be exempted from Sweden's tough new permanent residency rules, arguing that it will damage both academic standards and national competitiveness.

'They feel conned': Swedish universities fight for PHDs hit by new residency rules
At Lund Technical University, a majority of doctoral students are international. Photo: Kennet Ruona/LTU

In a post on Wednesday, Astrid Söderbergh Widding, the chair of Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions, said that Sweden’s universities had agreed to submit a joint letter to the government “very soon”, calling for parliament to put in place a special exemption for PHD students to make it easier to stay in Sweden after their studies. 

The parliament, she wrote, “should introduce an exemption for doctoral students and young researchers from the requirement to be financially self-sufficient”. 

Previously, doctoral students were eligible for a permanent residence permit if they had lived in Sweden with a residence permit for doctoral studies for four out of the past seven years. Apart from a slim set of requirements, this was granted more or less automatically.

But according to Sweden’s new Migration Act, which was introduced in July this year as comprehensive legislation to control the number of asylum applications, they now need to be able to additionally show that they can support themselves financially for at least a year and half.

The new law means that the rules for permanent residency are now the same for all categories of applicants, including doctoral students.

Stefan Bengtsson, the rector at Chalmers University of Technology, said that the change would mean as many as 400 to 500 doctoral students, many of whom have built up considerable expertise, might be unable to stay in Sweden.

“This makes for an uncertain future for those from outside of Europe who have applied to come to Sweden for an academic career, which is cause for great concern and disappointment among those who came here under other circumstances,” he told The Local. “Some of them may, of course, feel like they’ve been conned

But what was even more worrying, he said, would be the impact the change to the law might have in the longer term. 

“This change to the law could contribute to giving Sweden a bad reputation. This will create difficulties in recruiting internationally and damage our long-term skills supply.”


At Lund University, the majority of doctoral students in the science and technical faculties are from outside Europe, while Söderbergh Widding, who is also vice chancellor at Stockholm University, estimated that about half of doctoral students were international. 

Söderbergh Widding told the TT newswire that the change was “a devastating death blow”, which put to waste a “previously hard-won battle to make it possible for doctoral students to obtain a permanent residency permit after four years of studies”. 

She said in her letter that the change contradicted the research policy proposition from December 2020, which stated that the “number of foreign doctoral students who stay in Sweden should increase”, and said that giving residency to doctoral students was a good way to increase this.  

Ole Petter Ottersen, the rector of the elite Karolinska medical university, told the newswire that he thought the change in residency laws would damage Swedish competitiveness. 

“This is not good for Sweden. This will damage our ability to attract and recruit talent from other countries. For a country that lies on the periphery, the goal should be to make it easier, not harder, to recruit competence.”