Fulbright is a gain, not a drain

SINCE the end of communism, Slovak students have had the opportunity to spend their entire study abroad or participate in international exchange programmes.

SINCE the end of communism, Slovak students have had the opportunity to spend their entire study abroad or participate in international exchange programmes.

Nora Hložeková, who has been involved in exchange programmes since their inception in Slovakia, said that the number of Slovak students taking advantage of that opportunity is rising, as is the amount of foreign students and teachers coming to Slovakia.

Hložeková's career in exchange programmes began in 1992, when she took up a position at the Bratislava office of the Fulbright Commission in Czechoslovakia.

The Fulbright Commission is the local administrator of the Fulbright Program, which was founded by the United States Congress in the aftermath of the Second World War to promote understanding between the United States and the rest of the world. The programme achieves this mainly through an exchange of students, scholars and teachers.

In 1994, after the split of Czechoslovakia, the United States and Slovakia signed an agreement that established the Fulbright Commission in Slovakia as an autonomous, non-profit institution. Hložeková was appointed its executive director.

Hložeková said that the commission has helped about 175 Slovaks study, teach or conduct research in the United States. Ironically, she never had that opportunity herself.

"I was a student in the seventies," she said, "at a time when getting the chance to study abroad required compromises that I was not willing to make."

Hložeková earned her degree from the University of Economy in Bratislava, even though she was interested in languages and humanities.

"Studying economics enabled me to specialise in an important field of study and combine my interest in languages," she said. "I studied one obligatory language and two elective ones."

As well as overseeing the Fulbright Program's day-to-day management, Hložeková is also responsible for monitoring the performance of its participants and maintaining a relationship with government institutions, educational institutions and private institutions in both the United States and Slovakia.

The commission also awards scholarships to the best Slovak and American participants each year.

"International experience enhances a student or teacher's profile and proves their ability to survive or succeed in a different and competitive environment," Hložeková said.

These skills, training and motivation are valuable back home, since they are definitely attractive for public and private institutions, Hložeková said. In her opinion, it is not only individuals who benefit from international exchanges, but also their country and society.

"International education and experience makes a direct contribution to a country's social and economic development," she said.

Foreign students, teachers and researchers from other countries enrich courses and communities, and provide an international dimension to every subject taught at a university, she said.

"Students studying abroad have to successfully compete for financial aid or scholarships and measure themselves in a different environment."

Hložeková rejected concerns that exchange programmes are contributing to a brain-drain in Slovakia. For instance, Slovak participants in the Fulbright Program have to return home for two consecutive years after finishing a study or research stay in the United States, she said.

She acknowledged that most of the students develop professional and personal connections during their stay that influence their decisions about the future, but added that many of the students are wary of the cost of studying or living abroad.

"I have no doubts that if they get an offer in the Slovak Republic, they will accept it," she said.

Hložeková said that international mobility of students has always been a priority in Europe and that the introduction and implementation of European programmes such as Tempus and Erasmus have played an important role in motivating students to study abroad.

"Since then, the number of Slovak students studying abroad has steadily increased," she said.

However, exchange programmes are not the only route to studying abroad. Slovak students can also apply directly to foreign universities.

Hložeková said centres have been set up throughout the country to advise students on how to apply to foreign institutions. The Fulbright Commission's Educational Advising Center is the leader in providing information about educational prospects and studies in the United States, Hložeková said.

However, the commission's aim is not only to provide Slovaks with study opportunities in the United States, but also to bring American students, teachers and researchers to Slovakia. Since 1994, nearly 125 Americans have been awarded Fulbright grants for stays in Slovakia, Hložeková said.

Even though the quality of university education and research in Slovakia is far behind American standards, there are good reasons for Americans to do an exchange in Slovakia, Hložeková said.

One thing is that international experience is very valued in the United States, so exchange programmes enhance students, lecturers and experts' careers, Hložeková said.

"Universities need professionals with international experience to raise the profile and attractiveness of the institution when competing for talented students," she said.

She added that Slovakia's membership in the European Union and strong economic development make it attractive professionally and culturally.

After good experiences with international exchanges, Hložeková said her goal is to obtain more financial support for the commission, so that its number of American and Slovak participants continues to grow.

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