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Before College, a Crash Course on the US

Exchange students from former Soviet republics visit malls and shelters to get acclimated to American life

WHAT'S the difference between studying at a United States college and studying back home in Saratov, Russia? Anna Bazyleva doesn't hesitate: ``The possibility of choosing your courses.''

She explains that in Russia a student must choose a major immediately after finishing high school and his or her schedule of college classes is dictated by that choice: no browsing through course catalogs for interesting electives.

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For decades, few students from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, or Kazakhstan had a chance to experience the quite different academic environment in US universities. Exchange programs were virtually nonexistent during the cold-war years.

But such channels of understanding have been opening since the Soviet Union's disintegration. It's getting more common to see students like Ms. Bazyleva among the tens of thousands of Chinese, Indian, and other foreign scholars who have long benefited from sojourns at US colleges and universities. According to the United States Information Agency, this year a little more than 1,100 undergraduate college students from the former Soviet Union have participated in government-funded educational exchanges with the US. Before the breakup of communist rule, the number had been ``minuscule,'' the agency says.

Though growing, the numbers are still small. Paul Goble, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, notes in the current edition of the magazine Freedom Review, ``One of the more distressing statistics I have seen recently suggests there are almost 30 times as many students from China in American universities as students from Russia.'' Mr. Goble sees educational exchanges as one way of showing the former Soviets that the US has an enduring commitment to their progress and prosperity.

Young men and women from the former Soviet lands have a disadvantage, however: They have neither the networks of fellow students who've already been to the US nor well-informed staffers at exchange programs to brief them on how to live, study, and make friends on an American campus.

World Learning, a nonprofit international educational-services organization based in Brattleboro, Vt., is helping fill that gap. This summer it is running three-week orientation sessions at sites in Vermont, Florida, and Massachusetts, serving 83 visiting students. World Learning is working as a subcontractor to the American Collegiate Consortium for East-West Cultural and Academic Exchange in Middlebury, Vt.

The groups are responsible for planning academic years in the US for 126 students from the former Soviet republics. All the students are on one-year scholarships funded by the Congressional Freedom Support Act, which currently provides about $90 million for such educational exchanges. The money is used for programs from high school through graduate training, and some also helps Americans study in Russia and other former republics.

Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., hosted 28 of these intensely curious young scholars. Their orientation was divided roughly into three subject areas: consumer issues, social issues, and academic concerns.

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They visited malls, homeless shelters, and the Massachusetts State House. They heard talks on campus social life, discussed the meaning of friendship, and viewed films like ``Rudy,'' the story of a shrimpy guy who tries to make the Notre Dame football squad.

But the real value of the sessions may be the opportunity to get up to speed in an unfamiliar linguistic and cultural setting. ``It's very interesting, very good,'' says Oleg Dyatkevich, a journalism student from Belarus who will be attending St. Michael's College in Burlington, Vt. ``It succeeded in getting me to think in English.''

Mr. Dyatkevich, with long blond hair and a ready smile, wasn't too impressed by such wonders of consumerist America as the suburban mall - despite his experience back home of standing in line at every shop. ``I don't like shopping,'' he says simply.

AKNURA ABDIKODIROVA hails from Alma Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan. She has been particularly impressed by the relationship she and her fellow students have with the two instructors for the summer session, Erika Mitchell and Jane Moss. Contrasted to the strict classrooms of her home city, ``Teachers here really wait for questions; they're eager to help,'' Ms. Abdikodirova says. Her college for a year will be Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa.

Bazyleva and Andrei Nedilko, who is from Krasnodar in southern Russia, are struck by the social differences they see as they walk through nearby Boston and other US communities. Back home, for example, Bazyleva says, ``You would never see a smile on the face of a stranger. You would look at him like he was crazy.'' Bazyleva, whose field is journalism, will be at Murray State University in Murray, Ky., while Mr. Nedilko will attend Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.

A seminar with Robert Minetti, Bentley's dean of student life, and Maureen Goldman, the college's academic dean, gives the visitors a chance to air concerns about the year ahead. The questions pop up quickly: ``Please clarify, what's a distribution requirement?'' ``With all the activities on campus, when do American students do homework?''

Dean Minetti suggests they ``keep an open mind'' about dorm life, since they're likely to end up with freshmen or sophomore American roommates who are still seized by the exhilaration of being away from home for the first time. He warns that some American students may be a little in awe of foreign visitors who have lived through some turbulent history.

Abdikodirova astutely observes that the educational benefits can go two ways. ``We can teach them because they don't know what's going on in the rest of the world.''

Ms. Mitchell and Ms. Moss, who have taught other foreign students, remark that this group is a notch above most in its grasp of English and its bent for serious thought. All are in their middle college years, and they tend to be ``outstanding students, often from elite schools,'' Mitchell says.

But they're also typical in many ways. As one of the teachers tried to get a discussion going on the nature of friendship, two athletic-looking guys in the back of the room started whispering and chortling. Another student came up after a similar session, says Moss, and announced, ``Americans want to have a seminar about everything. In Ukraine, we just do it!''

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