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Students “Go East” For Learning With a Difference

Forget Paris and London, how about a medical course in Krackow or a language semester in Riga? The East is drawing students and it isn’t just the EU’s eastward expansion that’s responsible.


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What was originally planned as a short stay in Kazakstan has turned into a second longer one for Andrej Eifert, an architecture student at the Technical University in Berlin.

He’s already packing his bags to head out there again and this time plans a research stay in the cities of Almaty and Astana. He says the visit will help him further in his professional career, provide a valuable learning experience and allow him to focus on certain research areas.

"Kazakhstan has a lot to offer, precisely where design is concerned," Eifert says. "It’s a multi-nation land in transformation -- there’s a lot of work there for young planners and architects."

The stay abroad, he adds, also means a rethinking of fixed ideas. For example, the university system there is much more like being at school than the individual-based higher education system in Europe.

"It’s more important there to do things quickly than to reflect about things," Eifert says. On the other hand there’s an immense curiosity about other cultures and languages there, he adds.

Interest in the East growing

For many students, a stay in an eastern country might be a challenge at first but often turns into a positive experience after settling in.

Thomas Zettler, of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in charge of the scholarship program "Go East" says the interest in the East among students is growing. "A representative of the Charité medical faculty at the Humboldt University in Berlin told me that a few years ago they could only send a couple of students to Krackow (in Poland). Now there aren’t enough spots for all the medical students, who are making a beeline to Poland," Zettler says.

The scholarship program "Go East" supports students and graduates in securing a stay abroad in eastern and southeastern Europe and the countries of the GUS (the former USSR).

Lack of information and old prejudices

But despite the new-found interest in the former communist and soviet-bloc countries, there’s no denying that Paris, London and Madrid still sound much more attractive to the majority of students than Plovdiv, Lodz or Miskolc, provided they’ve heard of them at all.

But Zettler argues that the eastern countries are still too young for them to have made an impression on students in the West. "The Iron Curtain only fell ten years ago, before that you couldn’t get into the ‘eastern bloc’ so easily," he says.

He adds, there’s a lack of information and old prejudices are still firmly entrenched. "Most of the students (in the West) learned English as a foreign language, orient themselves along the Western education system and don’t feel so comfortable towards the other ‘eastern’ culture."

The East catching up with the West?

The fear of the unknown might be keeping students away from the East, but some hard facts about the education system there could set one reflecting on conditions at several universities in western Europe, plagued by overcrowding and lack of funds.

For starters, the Soviet era is over. The level of scientific research is up to western European standards, there are enough professors to guide the students, most of the universities have already switched to modern curricula and implemented a point system for grading performance.

Several universities in the East have also set up cooperations with universities in western Europe. For instance several universities in former communist east Germany have partnerships in the East. The German education ministry supports the ‘Go East’ program with €2.5 million, around 1,400 students have used the program since summer 2002.

"So much has become easier," says Martin Lenk, geography professor at the University of Greifswald in eastern Germany. "With ‘Go East’ you get support in looking for an apartment, getting a visa and overcoming all the other bureaucratic hurdles."

A career boost

Oliver Wieck, head of the East Commission of German Industry, also says that a person who has studied in the East has enviable professional chances in the West today. "The markets are right there before you and the times, in which thousands of experts on the East came from Germany’s former communist states, are long over," he says.

"A spontaneous survey among German companies found that there’s a huge demand for young people, who are well-acquainted with the culture, mentality and languages in eastern countries," he adds.

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