Duka’s Resilient Journey

By: Paige Penfield, Content Marketing Strategist

One hundred and forty-one days stuck in South Korea. Five nights and six days to get there. This is only a fraction of Duka’s journey to Gannon, home and back again.

Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, West Life – Pagmadulam “Duka” Namsraijav grew up listening to music from other countries. With an undergraduate degree in linguistics and dreams to study abroad, she was introduced to Gannon University at an International Education Expo in 2019 in her home country of Mongolia. Here, she met David Stewart, assistant director of global admissions and outreach, and was immediately drawn to the English as a Second Language program. After acquiring a visa, she made the challenging decision to spend time away from her husband and now 14-year-old daughter to pursue her dream and arrive at Gannon in January 2020. 

“ESL helped me make a lot of friends and learn about many cultures of the world through my classmates,” she said. “It was an excellent foundation course for my academic studies.” 

Unfortunately, Duka’s ESL experience was cut short after two months when classes shifted online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Eager to be home with her family, Duka gained financial and logistical support from Gannon’s student emergency funds and Campus Ministry team, then packed her bags to return to Mongolia, whose borders had closed. Preparing to enter through the Moscow border, she was disheartened to discover that she was unable to enter Mongolia and was faced with two options: return to the U.S. or travel to South Korea to stay with her cousins.  

“I believe Gannon is very warm. It’s like a family that loves, cares and respects each other … I am certain that I will always be connected with this wonderful extended family for years to come.”

Choosing the latter to be closer to home, Duka arrived in Seoul on March 24, 2020 after five nights and six days since departing the Pittsburgh International Airport. Despite countless attempts to access government charter flights and other means of returning home, Duka spent 141 days in South Korea, separated from the life she had come to know.  

“During my long stay in South Korea, I missed my family terribly and felt very depressed,” she said. “I was worried about what would happen if I contracted COVID or if my country wouldn’t open its borders. Everything was unclear and scary.” 

Thankfully, members of Duka’s Gannon Family were sure to check in on her. “From the day I left Gannon until my arrival in Seoul, Father Michael Kesicki [chaplain of Gannon University]  contacted me hourly to ensure my safety and well-being, which gave me the strength to get through those difficult days,” she said. While staying in South Korea, she also received birthday wishes from Marilee Wilkosz, current director of Global Support and Student Engagement, and former director, Sarah Speir, which “really lifted my spirits.”

She added that Mariana Syrotiak, director of English language and global training, and other faculty members also sent her emails regarding her studies and visa status, actions that made Duka feel supported and cared for while away. 

Her time in South Korea was not wasted, however; Duka and fellow students protested outside the Mongolian embassy to be returned home. They even made a documentary film, “Unreachable Home,” about Mongolian people stuck overseas and their struggle with repatriation. The film was submitted to a European documentary contest, which is still ongoing.  

Nearly five months later in August of 2020, the border to Mongolia opened and Duka was reunited with her family. She returned to Erie the following year, this time with her husband and daughter, as she resumed ESL and pursued a master’s in strategic communication. 

She said one of the greatest parts of returning to Gannon was the welcome she received. “The people I had known for just over two months in 2020 welcomed us back like old and close friends,” she said. “They helped me and my family find an apartment and even assisted us with setting up our electricity. It was truly lovely and respectable.” 

Now age 39, Duka achieved a lifelong dream of studying abroad and walking the stage at May Commencement. She will complete a summer internship in communications and plans to move to Indiana, where her family is currently living, to pursue a career in public relations. 

“I consider myself to be a very lucky person,” Duka said. “I believe Gannon is very warm. It’s like a family that loves, cares and respects each other … I am certain that I will always be connected with this wonderful extended family for years to come.” 

Duka's Journey to Study at Gannon: 2019 Mongolia, 1/20 US Gannon, 3/20 Moscow, Russia, 3/20 Seoul, South Korea, 8/20 Mongolia, 8/21 US Gannon

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Doug Oathout
Chief of Staff and Director of Marketing and Communications

Mallory (Hedlund) Bottoni ’14
Assistant Director for Marketing, Communications and Content

Paige Penfield
Content Marketing Strategist


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