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Moscow campus signals new era in Overseas Studies

STANFORD -- Stanford University officials are moving ahead quickly with plans to open an overseas study center in Moscow next fall.

According to the new Overseas Studies director, Professor Russell Berman, Stanford in Moscow will offer classes and research opportunities for about 25 undergraduates studying Russian language, history, politics, economics and culture.

Negotiations are still under way to find a home for the center, which probably will be located near a Russian academy or educational foundation. Students will be housed with Russian families in the surrounding academic community.

The university's current center in Krakow, Poland, probably will be redesigned into a smaller "research module," providing a base for students and faculty pursuing research on Eastern Europe (see accompanying story).

Stanford has been thinking seriously about establishing an overseas study center in Moscow since the early days of glasnost.

The university and the on-campus Hoover Institution have prominent scholars and archives devoted to Russian and East European studies, and the campus has been visited twice by Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1990 while he was Soviet president and again in 1992.

Until recently, though, the country's political and economic turmoil was a strong deterrent to setting up a formal program.

"I have asked experts here and in Russia repeatedly about security issues," said Berman, a professor of German studies and associate dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences.

"A year ago, people were saying, 'Don't do anything now. It's too soon.' Now what we hear back is, 'Sure, there's a risk it might not work out. But it's time.' Things have settled down enough."

Stanford knows firsthand the value of getting its students into countries while the action is hot. The university's overseas study centers in Berlin and Krakow were among the few American educational institutions on the scene during the liberation of Eastern Europe.

"Our students saw the Berlin Wall come down; they witnessed the first free elections in Poland in 40 years," said Janet Schmidt, assistant director for overseas academic programs.

"If you get your foot in the door early, you have access to a lot of the best people and the most interesting associations. People come to think of Stanford as the leading program in the area. It's easier to attract international scholars to teach and do one- time lectures."

In addition to Berlin and Krakow, Stanford operates overseas study centers in Oxford, Paris, Florence, Santiago and Kyoto. About a third of all Stanford undergraduates spend from one quarter to a full year in these programs -- taking classes, doing research and making normal progress toward their Stanford degrees.

Logistically, there is no doubt that Stanford in Moscow will be a harder center to set up and run than the more Westernized programs.

"It's clear that the program in Moscow will not be for faint-hearted students," Berman said. "It's a city with major social problems. Nevertheless, this is a historic moment. If we can get a program going, students there will witness the dramatic changes that faculty members are studying."

The move toward Moscow comes after several years of difficult pruning in Stanford's Overseas Studies Program. Faced with approximately $600,000 in budget cuts over the past three years, planners consolidated some programs and closed others altogether.

In 1990, the university shut down its popular overseas study center in Tours, France, and expanded its program in Paris to accommodate more students.

This year, Stanford closed its center in Salamanca, Spain. The university also redesigned its 31-year-old Florence program into a smaller, more academically focused study center.

Although the changes upset some faculty and alumni who had fond memories of the old centers, planners feel strongly that the new, leaner Overseas Studies programs are on the right course.

Among the improvements they cite:

  • More qualified students. "Before, students used to talk about 'taking a quarter off' to go overseas," Schmidt said. "In the six years I've been here, that's all but disappeared." Today's applicants are more carefully screened, they take full class loads overseas, they are strongly encouraged to do follow-up work once they get back. "Students are tuned into the fact that this is relevant to their education," she said.
  • Community integration. Years ago, travel abroad was less common, and students seemed to require a more sheltered experience than they do today - hence, the large villas and manor houses that used to house Stanford centers in Europe. Housing today's students with local families makes them far less isolated and gives them more direct contact with the cultures they are studying. And, says Schmidt, "We spend a lot less on infrastructure and a lot more on [the academic experience]."
  • Better teaching. Moving programs from provincial towns into big cities has greatly enlarged the pools of qualified local instructors. In Paris, the person teaching 19th-century French sculpture winter quarter is a curator at the Musee D'Orsay. At Oxford, one-on-one tutorials with Oxford professors are the basis of many honors theses. "The students say, 'I've never worked so hard in my life, but this is what I came to Stanford to do,' " Schmidt said.
  • Community outreach. In July 1991, Stanford in Berlin hosted a three-day public symposium featuring talks by Stanford and local experts on the economic transformation in Germany. Among those in attendance were German reporters and the mayor of Berlin. Another symposium, on European economic and cultural integration, is planned for next winter at the Florence center. "The goal is to make the centers magnets for intellectual activities," Berman said. And since students help to organize the symposia, "it's a learning opportunity for them."
  • Research opportunities. Another exciting development in overseas studies is the increased emphasis on original undergraduate research (see accompanying story). "The old philosophy was to give students a general introduction to topics when they went overseas," Berman said. "Now we try to build research networks that allow students to engage directly in innovative projects overseas that make use of local resources."

Probably the most significant change in Stanford's overseas studies program is its general shift beyond Europe to a more global orientation.

The university gained a foothold in Japan in 1987 with the opening of the Kyoto program, and is firmly establishing one in South America this year with the program in Santiago.

Once the program in Moscow is set up, planners hope to turn their sights toward such locales as Africa and China.

"It's not going to happen this year or next, but we are initiating discussions with our own faculty and exploring various locations," Berman said.

Possible sites in or near China might be Shanghai, Beijing, Taiwan or Hong Kong, which will be annexed to China from Britain in 1997.

A center in Africa could be located in Botswana, Zimbabwe or even in a democratic South Africa, something that couldn't even have been contemplated 10 years ago.

"Especially in Southern Africa, the rapidity of change is reminiscent of the developments that let us enter Eastern Europe," Berman said.

"We want to be prepared to be able to respond to opportunities. If it becomes possible to work in a part of the world that could provide exciting intellectual opportunities, then Overseas Studies would be remiss in holding back."



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