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Student centre opens doors in Prešov

In her first year at Prešov University, Jana (not her real name) lived in the Prešov university student dormitory. In her second year, she didn't score enough "points" in the school's rating system, and was shut out. Lacking money for private accommodation, she got hold of a mattress and spent the school year sleeping on the floor of a friend's dorm room. This year, she did what other students do: paid a bribe for a bed.
By western standards, university life in Slovakia is difficult. Money is short, dormitory space is tight, books are hard to find, and facilities are often run down or out of date.
But students in Prešov now have help. In November last year, Slovakia's first Študentské Servisné Centrum (Student Services Centre) opened thanks to funding from the European Union's Tempus programme.


Prešov university's new student services centre is meant to be a model for other Slovak universities, say its founders.
photo: David McLean

In her first year at Prešov University, Jana (not her real name) lived in the Prešov university student dormitory. In her second year, she didn't score enough "points" in the school's rating system, and was shut out. Lacking money for private accommodation, she got hold of a mattress and spent the school year sleeping on the floor of a friend's dorm room. This year, she did what other students do: paid a bribe for a bed.

By western standards, university life in Slovakia is difficult. Money is short, dormitory space is tight, books are hard to find, and facilities are often run down or out of date.

But students in Prešov now have help. In November last year, Slovakia's first Študentské Servisné Centrum (Student Services Centre) opened thanks to funding from the European Union's Tempus programme. The centre provides students with housing assistance, job searches, counselling, summer internships and opportunities to study abroad.

Teodor Hrehovčík, an Associate Professor of English at Prešov, got the idea while travelling in Britain. "I saw these wonderful student centres at different universities in Britain and I thought it would be good to create something similar for our students," he said.

He then recruited Silvia Truchanová, a June 2000 graduate from Prešov University's Faculty of Arts, to head the centre. To prepare, Truchanová spent a week in Britain to study student services centres.

"We looked at what the universities in Britain provided and we tried to adapt ideas that seemed appropriate for our students," she said. "We also sent out a survey in the fall and used their feedback to help shape the centre."

"The primary thing we learned from the survey," said Hrehovčík, "is that the students most immediately need help with finding part-time work and housing."

Truchanová said the housing shortage was caused by the fact that "the university enrolls about 1,000 more students than it did a year ago. The school wasn't built for so many students, so there just isn't enough space."

Which is why they implemented the points system, aimed at awarding housing to those most in need. "Next year, I'm changing my legal address to my grandmother's in central Slovakia," says Jana, noting that students gain more points the further from campus they live. "Maybe that'll get me more points and get me into a dormitory."

To tackle the shortage of housing at the university, the centre has been building a database of Prešov residents with flats or rooms to let. "We are contacting the people of Prešov," Hrehovčík said. "Then, we will have someone to look at the rooms to see if they are suitable. We can then have a database to help connect students to private accommodation."

Another objective of the centre is to aid graduating students in job searches. "We want to help students find jobs when they graduate, especially in teaching, since Prešov university is oriented in this direction," Truchanová said. She added that they are currently contacting schools in eastern Slovakia to help create a central database of potential employers.

"We will also help people write resumés and prepare for job interviews," she added. "There is no other place for them to get these services."

The centre also offers a variety of counselling services. "It's something completely new here in Slovakia," Hrehovčík said. "We have counselling for careers, but also for legal problems, psychological problems, or even finances."

A psychologist visits the centre every Wednesday afternoon to speak with students privately about any problems they might have, whether related to exams, family or depression. The centre is also working with the local Československá obchodná banka (ČSOB) to provide financial counselling and seminars to help students learn how to spend, budget, or save their money.

"We also just want to be a place where students can meet and feel comfortable," Truchanová said.

Student clubs use the centre for meetings. In February a politics club met in the centre with Education Minister Milan Ftáčnik as its guest speaker. A literary club recently used the centre to put together the first issue of a student literary magazine.

The centre will also be in charge of helping foreign students get oriented to life at a Slovak university.

When asked if other universities would follow Prešov's examples, Hrehovčík replied, "in fact, it's the final part of our mandate. We are required to disseminate what we learn in hopes that other universities can also start such centres."

The Prešov centre has a certain shock value for students entering the first time. It has a newly renovated interior of hardwood floors, freshly painted walls, modern furniture, and state-of-the-art computer equipment. It's spacious with large windows to bring in natural light. There are corkboards with a few job postings and racks holding a variety of pamphlets.

"Students are timid the first time they come in," said Berna Jacobson, an American Peace Corps volunteer working at the centre. "They can't believe that this big new place is for them, so they're shy. They also have trouble believing that the pamphlets are there for the taking."

Later, Jana enters the centre. She's awaiting a summer-job related fax from America and she says the centre is the logical place to go for help. She picks up the fax and rushes off to class.

The Web site for the centre is: www.unipo.sk/pu/ssc/

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