College expects satellite students Western Maryland's program in Budapest to yield 24 transfers

November 17, 1995|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

The seed that Western Maryland College planted in Budapest two years ago will flower at the end of next summer.

In August, about two dozen students are expected to come from Budapest, where they have attended the college's new satellite campus for their first two years.

Once here, they will complete their junior and senior years. These students already are students of Western Maryland College. They just have never been to the main campus. They attend classes, taught in English by mostly American professors, in leased space at what was once the Communist party education center in Budapest.

"I call this operation 'Eastminster,' " said Tamas Bacskai, economics professor at WMC Budapest, who visited this week with college administrators.

Dr. Bacskai and Gabor Drexler, who is director of the Budapest program, visited Westminster for the first time this week. They are preparing for the next stage, when their students in Hungary come to complete their education.

The students will be a truly international group. Most are Hungarians, but the 60 students enrolled as freshmen and sophomores include students from Australia, Cyprus, Israel, Slovakia, Russia and even Mexico and Canada. Those students have been living in Hungary, usually because a parent is working in Hungary.

"This is an American college in Budapest, which means that anyone in the republic who does not want to send a child back to the states to go to college, has this option," Mr. Drexler said.

The goal of the Budapest program is for these students to work toward a bachelor of arts degree in economics or business administration. But one reason the Hungarians sought a liberal arts school was to give students a broad base of knowledge, said Mr. Drexler and Dr. Bacskai.

"For us, the importance of this broad foundation is that these students who show a strong interest in business and economics might change their minds some day," Mr. Drexler said.

"This offers them more room to maneuver, and makes it possible to change majors if they find it necessary," he said.

In fact, one of the students who has begun the program in Budapest already intends to pursue a political science major.

The setting in Westminster will be much different. The students in Budapest, as in most European cities, do not live in dormitories.

"Campus life is not a tradition in Europe," Mr. Drexler said. "Large universities are in cities, so some of the students may miss the attractions offered by a large city. On the other hand, others will ,, recognize the advantage of this quiet seclusion from the noise of large cities."

The story of how this small liberal arts school of 1,300 students came to open a satellite campus halfway around the world started in February 1993 when WMC President Robert H. Chambers III got a phone call from Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat.

Dr. Lantos was a Hungarian refugee and Holocaust survivor who emigrated to the United States and became a professor at San Francisco State University. He has maintained contacts with his homeland, and has helped establish programs connected with American colleges and universities.

When he called Dr. Chambers, it was to inform him that Hungarians from College International, a group that had been linked with U.S. schools for about 10 years, were in Washington that week and wanted to talk with college leaders. A staff member in Dr. Lantos' office in California knew a WMC alumnus, and suggested the school.

"I went to Washington the next day," Dr. Chambers said. "I do not believe Western Maryland College was first on their list. I saw it as a wonderful opportunity and went for it. The other schools might have been a little slower, a little less enthusiastic."

What Dr. Chambers did to win over the Hungarians was pull one trump card after another. The first was college trustee George Varga, also a Hungarian refugee. He graduated from Western Maryland College in 1961 and worked his way to vice president of General Electric. When GE bought Tungsram Co. Ltd., the largest electronics company in Central Europe, in 1989, Mr. Varga returned to Hungary to run it. He now lives in Atlanta.

"I dropped his name in the middle of the conversation, and everyone knew him or knew of him," Dr. Chambers said.

The Hungarians also wanted to make sure that whatever program they began would receive full accreditation. Dr. Chambers was a member of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, and knew exactly what the accreditation process would be.

The next day -- two days after Dr. Lantos first called -- the Hungarians were visiting the WMC campus. They wanted to know whether it was a good place for international students.

Dr. Chambers asked two students, a Cypriot and his Swedish girlfriend, to help with the tour. Another Swedish student was on the cover of the alumni magazine, which had a story on international students. And the hill was covered by a light blanket of snow.

Dr. Lantos, Mr. Vargas, Middle States and the campus -- "All that did it," Dr. Chambers said.

He said the decision to focus on economics and business was mutual, and made sense -- Hungarians were entering the free market after decades of communism.

"They wanted it, and we had it -- economics and business within a liberal arts college," Dr. Chambers said.

For Dr. Bacskai, the pairing of economics and liberal arts is a natural.

"Economics is a behavioral science, though it is nowadays masked in a lot of mathematics," he said.

"But if you look at it, it is about how people behave, what they assume will happen, what they predict will happen," he said.

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