Educating Young People – How the Soros Foundation started in Georgia


by Nino Chinchaladze, Center for International Education

1992.  Prague. The Congress of Anthropologists is in progress. I am one of the participants at the Congress. Professor Ernest Gellner is our host and one of the greeting party. When the conference ends Gellner asks me to stay on for two more days to visit the newly opened Central European University.

The university is interesting. It has been launched in Prague and Budapest and is funded by George Soros. I hear the name of George Soros for the first time and hear even more about the new university. A lot of people work at the new university and they are very keen on having students from Georgia as well. They ask me to assist them in this matter.

It is a bit strange - there is no electrical power in Georgia at that time, no transport, no peace and lots of troubles and hardship. The civil war has just ended. The universities were barely functioning and someone abroad is offering to host Georgian students to study for free.  I cannot imagine saying no to this offer although I have no idea how to take all of this forward.

I arrive in Tbilisi: no communication, no money to pay for the announcement or for renting a room for conducting tests; there is nothing but enthusiasm based on somebody getting a chance to study in a good university, in peaceful and beautiful Prague, and that is a serious motivation.

I go round the universities, pin some flyers to the walls and tell the students about this rare opportunity. Some are interested, the majority seem skeptical. However, 27 applications are submitted. That's when I see the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) for the first time in my life. I go to the Polytechnic Institute, thanks to my personal contacts, and am allocated a freezing cold room for several hours. I conduct the tests. There are interesting applicants; today, many of them are well-recognized.  The process is complicated, but interesting.

And finally, the first six students are accepted into the Central European University in 1993. After this we all started to believe that something good could happen without protectionism and corruption and something could be changed in our lives.

Next the Foundation  is established in Georgia and in May, 1994, the first visit of George Soros takes place and excitement and new work, connected with it, becomes extremely precious to me. Nothing is better than seeing the shining eyes of young people when you tell them they have been enrolled in an American or European university. The Open Society Institute opens up a Network Scholarships Program and immediately, in 1995, we start to cooperate with it. Soon a new centre is opened which is called the International Student Advising Center.

A new program is being launched each year, a new way for more young people to be educated abroad before coming back to serve their country. During a visit to New York in 1997, we are offered masters' degree programs for social workers. I know only vaguely what social workers are, but agree immediately because this profession is not at all developed in Georgia and I understand very well the importance of its professional development. Since then, this program has completely changed the landscape. The people who leave for this program and then come back very soon set up their own association and implement projects. Today departments at two universities are already working at full swing in this direction covering all stages of teaching.

I will not go into details about the importance of education abroad because it is obvious, but I can say what this trend has changed in Georgia--it has given birth to the belief (a powerful motivator) that if you study hard and do well, then you may be able to go abroad and get a good education. It does not matter who your parents are or whether you can afford to pay. People who would never, ever imagine that they would have this opportunity face a real chance: open and transparent procedures through which the best are really being selected.

Very often the question is asked -- is that a brain drain? I think on the contrary, it is rather a brain gain because the education acquired abroad is being used here afterwards and passed onto future generations. I remember well when Marta Loerke, Program Director, told me once, ‘You know, the best (result) for this programs would be if our graduates work for the public sector or in the academic sector.'

And this is where our graduates work today; the majority in the government sector and even more in the universities, although some go to business, international organizations and the non-governmental sector. By the way, the OSGF assists a lot to make the "brain" stay in the country through its Academic Support Programs which helps students, who have been educated abroad, to continue their activities when they come back.

As an ethnologist, I know from my previous life what a big difference there is between the city and the province in Georgia. Therefore, one of my aims was to engage the regions in those processes too.  I knew that this would not be easy in the regions, but we still started and opened four centers in various cities. Although there are not as many applications from the regions as from Tbilisi, these centers have become cradles of education which are visited by young people to listen to the lectures, receive consultations, and select films. We are trying all the time to find foreigners to volunteer to share their knowledge about cultures of the countries where local youth will continue their studies.

One more successful program was that conducted to train civil servants. So far the Georgian harvest consists of 30 graduates from masters' programs at Harvard and Columbia Universities, in the area of education policy and management; and from Brandeis and Syracuse Universities, in healthcare and environmental protection policy. The Georgian model is being implemented in Moldova now.

What is the result of the work of our centre? After 2006, it spun off to become an independent NGO, named the Center for International Education (CIE).

Eight hundred Georgians have earned  masters' degrees and another 1,000 have completed short and long programs for young professors and professionals.

This year, we had 95 finalists accepted by different universities and programs. Of them, two CIE advisees have been accepted by Harvard University with full financial support and one will go to Yale University with 75 percent financial support. 

As the program expanded, we added more academic services to our scholarship programs. We started by administering the GMAT tests. Now we have licenses for four international tests.

Our earlier alumni are teaching in Tbilisi State University, Ilia State University, Batumi and Telavi State Universities, while new alumni have begun working in the public sector and at international organizations. 

Yes, the figures are impressive, although they are not enough. We need many more. We should seek especially for those who think that education gained abroad should be shared with others at home, should be taught to others and should be continued furthermore, as studying and learning is not a one-off process but a life-long effort.

I think we have a long way to go especially when big reforms take place and the demand for international students abroad gets bigger and bigger. As more time passes, more graduates from Harvard, Columbia, Oxford and Cambridge will be needed here.




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