Hungarians earn credit in the West 20 students from satellite campus stay at WMC for two years

'A wonderful opportunity'

Budapest site created to allow Europeans to earn U.S. degree

December 29, 1996|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Western Maryland College has two campuses.

The new one is in the former Communist education building of Hungary, in cosmopolitan Budapest, where free trade, night life and restaurants have emerged since the fall of communism in 1989.

The mother campus in Westminster is down the street from one bar and a diner where the most exotic flavoring is black pepper.

In Budapest, the multilingual students come from as far as Cyprus and Florence, Italy, to take WMC courses taught in English.

In Westminster, most of the students come from Pennsylvania and New Jersey. One thought Budapest was in Romania.

But Sandor Zwack, a 22-year-old junior of Hungarian-British-Italian background, said two years in this quiet Carroll County town is a minor sacrifice for an American degree that can open doors all over Europe.

"It's like an American passport," he said of the degree he will earn in May 1997. "You can go anywhere. Except Cuba."

Zwack and the 19 other students from the fledgling Budapest campus are in the middle of their junior year at Western Maryland. The program offers two years at the Budapest campus and junior and senior years at Westminster. Zwack and his classmates were the first to attend.

Budapest is an unlikely choice for the sole satellite campus of a small, homogenous Western Maryland liberal arts college, which has fewer students than the local high school. Hagerstown or Cumberland, maybe. But Budapest?

One of the Hungarian professors likes to call his satellite campus "Eastminster."

The pairing came about when college officials heard that Hungarian officials were looking for an accredited liberal arts school to offer courses there, leading to an American degree. They wanted an emphasis on economics, as Hungary enters the free market. The nonviolent shift from communism was one of the earliest behind the former Iron Curtain.

Chance to expand

"They wanted it, and we had it -- economics and business within a liberal arts college," said Robert H. Chambers III, president of WMC. When he got the call from the office of a congressman helping the Hungarian officials, he saw a chance to expand the college to a country going through historic changes.

"I went to Washington the next day," Chambers said.

He invited the Hungarian officials to Westminster and had a Cypriot student and his Swedish girlfriend show them around. He dropped the name of George Varga, a well-known Hungarian-American industrialist and 1961 graduate of Western Maryland College.

"I do not believe Western Maryland College was first on their list," Chambers said.

But he won them over.

"I saw it as a wonderful opportunity and went for it. The other schools might have been a little slower, a little less enthusiastic," Chambers said.

Zwack is considering a career in international relations or returning to his family business producing a Hungarian liquor called Unicum after he graduates. Until then, he is learning about marketing and economics in the country that turned a soft drink into an international symbol.

"Marketing, business strategies -- they were all born here," Zwack said. "It never existed in Hungary. It only started after the downfall of communism."

Zwack spent his freshman and sophomore years going to class in Budapest and visiting with his family on holidays at their other home in Italy.

But he willingly left the Old World charm of Budapest and the plazas of Florence to spend his junior and senior years going to Western Maryland College, right here in Westminster.

'Huge difference'

"In Hungary especially, an American diploma can make a huge difference" in any job that involves marketing or international business, Zwack said. "If there's another guy with a Hungarian diploma, chances are you're going to get the job over him."

Most of the students from the Budapest campus come from middle-class families, and nearly all have visited the United States or Canada before. They had an idea what to expect, but were still surprised by some things, such as the lack of public transportation, taxis, good bread.

"It's foam," Zoltan Menyhart said of American sliced bread.

By now, he has happily torn into a dense crusty loaf. Like most of the other Hungarian students, he has gone home for winter break. He plans to bring back a kitchen tool that he could find nowhere in the United States but that is available in any supermarket in Hungary -- a noodle-maker, the kind in which soft dough is pushed through small holes directly into boiling liquid.

In their homeland through January, the students have switched from an American diet of too many hamburgers and pizza slices to husleves -- a beef-vegetable soup -- and galuskas -- noodles.

Before his finals were over, Zwack had telephoned his mother to ask that by his second day home, she make his favorite pasta with seafood fresh from the Mediterranean. He ordered it at Sabatino's in Baltimore's Little Italy, and it was good, but not like in Florence.

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