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Belarussian Sees US Students Missing Opportunities

OLEG DYATKEVICH is plunging into his second quarter as a student in the United States. Last fall, courses in international politics dominated his schedule. This winter, it'll be business courses. As he describes it, life at St. Michael's College, near the shore of Lake Champlain in Vermont, is a study in studying.

But that's just what Mr. Dyatkevich, a tall, blond fellow who blends intensity and a ready sense of humor, bargained for. His home is Minsk, the capital of Belarus, one part of the former Soviet Union that has managed to stay out of the news most of the time since gaining independence. He and 82 other visiting undergraduates from Russia and neighboring lands are in the US under the auspices of World Learning, an educational exchange program based in Brattleboro, Vt.

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Late last summer, Dyatkevich rolled into Vermont. Other colleagues went as far as Texas and Kentucky. He has been in touch with some of them, and their lives in the US, like his, revolve around the classroom and the library.

During his stay in the States, Dyatkevich says he is most interested in learning ''the basics of thinking.'' The teachers here provide more ''structure'' than his professors back in Belarus, he says. ''In my country, you must do everything on your own. You create your own skeleton or structure'' for a course, he says. While students have little choice what to take, they spend most of their time working through lengthy reading lists.

The greater specificity in college offerings here gives students ''something more touchable much more practical,'' he says.

His goals from a year of American education -- or more, if he can arrange it -- include the know-how to start his own business, perhaps in publishing. At the Belarussian State University in Minsk, he started the country's first independent student newspaper. It was short-lived, he says, because of his ignorance of the business end of journalism. At St. Michael's, he does layout and writing for a student-run commentary magazine.

Making friends here has been no problem for Dyatkevich. Some friends here want to learn about Belarussian life and culture, but such interest is rare, he says. Only about ''10 percent'' of American students he has met ask about Belarus, he guesses.

Dyatkevich notes other shortcomings among his American peers. Students here don't seem to appreciate the advantages they have, he says. He recalls one class where students were asked how many of them used computer-based electronic mail. Only three, including himself, raised their hands. All that technology right at hand, and only a handful take the initiative to use it, he muses.

Computers can be found in Belarus, too, but in nowhere near the quantity or quality found on American campuses.

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His own thinking frequently goes back to Minsk, where, he laments, former Communist leaders have foisted themselves into positions of power in the new ''democratic'' government. He wonders how ready his country was for democracy.

But Dyatkevich's greatest concern about his home country is what he sees as the moral ''blank space'' left when the certainties of the old system dissolved. Younger people are often consumed by the desire to make money in the new, more open economic conditions. They neglect their studies, he says, and forget about reading the great writers like Pushkin and Dostoyevsky. ''But tomorrow their money will finish,'' he predicts.

For his part, Dyatkevich is intent on returning to Belarus to see if he can make a difference in bringing his country into today's world. He says he feels obligated to make sure the money used to bring him here is well spent and is determined to ''get all the knowledge I can get here.''

He wouldn't want to make the US his home, he says, but he hopes to broaden his experience here and spend some time in a major city. And he's sure of one thing: To get the depth of knowledge he'd like to take back home, ''one year is not enough.''

*Oleg Dyatkevich is one of several students interviewed by the Monitor at the beginning of their stay in the US Aug. 29.

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