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Volunteers find new frontier in Eastern Europe

STANFORD -- Since President John F. Kennedy's famous call to service in the 1960s, American college students have been digging wells and teaching school in villages throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Now, with the end of the Cold War, many students are discovering a new frontier for service in such historic cities as Prague, Warsaw and Budapest.

"There is an increasing interest in programs to help Eastern Europe," said Matt Eldridge, a 1991 Stanford University graduate in political science, who coordinates a program of English language instruction for the American Czechoslovak Society.

"People of my generation grew up during the Reagan administration, with all its Cold War tensions. Now, the whole world order has changed dramatically. The barriers have come down, and students are seeking ways to bridge the gap."

Eldridge's interest in Eastern Europe was kindled during the winter of 1989-90. As a student at Stanford's satellite campus in Berlin, he witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall.

After traveling extensively and meeting other students in the area, he helped to found Stanford Students for Eastern European Democracy (SEED), which seeks to promote academic and cultural exchange with student groups in Eastern and Central Europe.

The group has more than 50 Stanford students as members, and a 17-member advisory board composed of Stanford faculty and Hoover Institution fellows. In 1991, the group received the Saturn Award for Public Service at Stanford. It has been host to visiting student leaders from Yugoslavia, Romania and Czechoslovakia.

In addition, 32 Stanford students traveled to Czechoslovakia last summer to teach English in Prague and Bratislava. After some traditional classroom instruction, the Stanford students accompanied their Czech counterparts on rafting trips down the Luznice River, teaching them through conversation and campfire songs.

Stanford students also have sent crates of used textbooks to Eastern European college students.

"Before, all Czechoslovakians were forced to learn Russian," said senior Mike Novotny, a co-founder of the group. "Now, everybody wants to learn English, and English books are in dramatically short supply.

"The Czechoslovakians love Americans. They identify us with freedom, with throwing out the Germans and the Russians. They have an immensely positive attitude toward Americans."

This summer, SEED hopes to expand its general English language instruction to include specialized courses in economics and history.

The group also plans to initiate a pilot program for seven instructors at the University of Bucharest in Romania, and to establish computer clusters there and at the University of West Bohemia in Czechoslovakia.

In addition to helping their Eastern European counterparts, the programs are giving Stanford students an unprecedented look at societies that would have been closed to them just a few years ago.

"Many of the Stanford students who taught in Czechoslovakia last year said it was the best summer of their lives," Novotny said.



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