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September 10, 2007

Students participate in exchange program

Josh Hall, a biology sophomore at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, worried about communication barriers and cultural differences when he was told that his roommate this semester would be an international student.

But after a visit to Hall's hometown of Springhill and many hours on the Playstation, Hall said his new roommate is adapting to concepts like lawnmowers and American football.

Aliaksandr Rainchyk, a 20-year-old business major from Belarus, is one of five ULM students in the Eurasian Undergraduate Exchange Program.

The program was established by Congress in 1992 to promote cultural understanding, democracy and economic development in former Soviet Union countries. Since 1992, nearly 4,000 participants have completed the program sponsored by state department.

The students come from Belarus, Uzbekistan, Moldova, Tajikistan and Ukraine.

If there is anything to be learned from Rainchyk, it's that freedom of speech is a treasure.

Sitting at one of the campus Starbucks tables, he stared directly at the yellow notepad and watched the pen move.

The concept of speaking to a reporter and saying whatever he wants is not so common in his country, where the Belarussian media has a clear bias in favor of the government.

Rainchyk could say anything in that coffee shop about Belarus' president, Alexander Lukashenko, who despite objections has implemented Soviet-era policies in a government accused of human rights violations.

"We could talk about politics (in Belarus), ... but it would not be published," Rainchyk said.

"If you say something wrong, your name is put on a black list, and they teach you not to speak that way. You can be imprisoned."

The 20-year-old said he was proud to apply for the one-year program because its aim is to support freedom.

"We are trying to establish a democracy in our country," he said. "But we're still known as the last dictatorship in Europe."

Rainchyk has taken a liking to his new university. He pauses every few moments to translate what he wants to say from Belarussian to English.

"This is an important building. It looks like a palace," he said, walking in front of the ULM library.

"I like cafeteria. I like library. I like everything on campus," he said. "We don't have such things on my campus."

In his home country, Rainchyk attends Grodno State University. He began to learn English on the first day of school at age 6.

"But I still have a communication barrier," he laughed.

He was born while Belarus historically a Russian Orthodox country was still part of the Soviet Union, and religion was prohibited.

"I was Christianized in secrecy. No one knew about it," he said as he walked across the Northeast Drive bridge that crosses Bayou DeSiard.

Avazbek Islamov, of Uzbekistan, said the United States offers him similar opportunities.

Islamov said he could not attend classes at his school, the University of World Economy and Diplomacy in the capital city of Tashkent, dressed the way he was that day in a black T-Shirt and blue jeans.

"You would be breaking the rules," he said. "Your pants must be black and your shirt would have to be white with a collar tie."

When asked if adapting to life in another language was difficult, Islamov's reply was, "Of course." But the most difficult part, he said, is the 10-hour time difference.

He's already making friends, though.

"I like the style of living here and the resting what you call 'chilling out,'" he said, impressing himself with the slang he's already picked up.

"You see? I am learning," he said.

David Neal, of Jonesboro, is Islamov's host father.

"Avazbek is, of course, Muslim. So we have to be careful about what he eats," Neal said.

The five students can spend time with their host families on weekends. Because they don't have cars to get around, it's an opportunity to get off campus.

Neal and his wife learn about Avazbek's country and background through personal interaction.

On a recent trip to Wal-Mart, Neal said Islamov "just walked and looked. He had never seen anything like it. Then the mall was even more exciting for him. They don't have much."

Government estimates in 2003 showed that about 26.2 percent of Tajikistan's population live below the poverty line. Neal, who has housed high school exchange students from other countries, was impressed with Islamov's manners.

"The other ones never said, 'Yes, ma'am' or 'No, ma'am.' And they never called us, 'Mom' and 'Dad.' That makes us feel at ease with him," Neal said.

Kateryna Kamchatna is Ukranian, but she blends into the ULM crowd with her smooth stride and almost perfect English.

The education major studied English for 11 years and hopes to be a teacher or interpreter after graduation.

To relax, Kamchatna swims at the Lake C. Oxford Natatorium on campus. But sometimes she feels too busy.

"I don't understand," she said, smiling with her hands on her cheeks. "I only have 12 hours, but it seems like I have much more work to do."

Finally it came to her. It's all the running around.

"In Ukraine, my school is one building. Here everything is in different places. I run all day long and find out I really haven't done anything," she said.

These students sometimes have to read and research more than those who grew up here to understand certain concepts.

"In my American education class, everyone is American," she said. "They live here and know the big picture. But I am only here three weeks. I don't know the details about becoming certified."

Kamchatna echoed Islamov's words about the relaxed atmosphere here.

"I don't know if there is a difference between the northern and southern states," she said, "but here everyone is so relaxed. They are very pleasant.

"In my country people hurry and go to work to make money. Maybe in places like New York it's the same."

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