Tuesday, June 09, 2009


Imagine this scenario: You are 18 and moving to a different country, a different continent in fact. You don’t speak the language. Your skin color is different than 98% of the people in that country. You have been accepted to university in this country but you have been sent no materials about the visa process, class registration, or where you will live. In fact, when you show up, you find out there are no student dorms for international students and you are on your own to find an apartment- In this new city in this new continent without speaking the language and being clearly foreign. You don’t know what rent should be, and the only people who speak your language also don't know what the rent should be, so you actually have no idea whether you’re paying a reasonable rent or if you’re being cheated. Nor whether you’re in a safe or dangerous neighborhood.

To register for classes you must stand in a line at the Registrar’s office for hours on end. The local students are allowed to walk to the front of the line, but the international students must wait. You don’t get a number, so if the office closes before you get to the front that day (a very likely possibility, considering they inexplicably only open 5 hours a day), you simply must start over the next day, even if you were next in line to register. Because the school started the session late, you weren’t able to start your visa process as a registered student until a date past the deadline of when you needed to do it. So you have to pay several hundred euros more in 'late' fees that you didn't even know existed or you were late for. There is nothing even remotely resembling a “new student orientation” and you have zero advocates anywhere in the university. Once classes start, in your ENGLISH-speaking program, you come to find out that the professors are the same ones who teach the local program, which would be fine except that not all of them actually speak English fluently.

Since this is your first time living outside of your parent’s home you have no clue how to get internet, a phone, or deal with utilities. Let alone fix a broken toilet in your dilapidated apartment. And remember you don’t speak the language. And have no mentor or advocate at your university to help you. Here again you have no idea whether you are being cheated or not. You don’t know where to buy groceries, you don’t know where to get notebooks, and you certainly don’t know what places have the best deals. Any individual one of these things may occur in your home country if you went to a new city for university, but combined with everything else, it just seems downright overwhelming.

Your class times and days may change at the whim of the professor, even mid-semester. Extra class sessions may be added, even on the weekends, with no notice. The process of scheduling dates for final exams is a negotiation- each year (of a six year program) has a student representative who talks with each individual professor to decide when the final for that subject will be. If your class representative is efficient, you might find out mid-semester. If they are lazy or ineffective for whatever reason, this negotiating process may last until even a month before the final exams. As you are hoping to go back to your home country for summer break, this makes booking flights at a reasonable amount of time in advance for a reasonable fare rather difficult.

If you (understandably) have concerns about some of these facts of life in your new land and would like to be proactive in working to find solutions to the problems you perceive rather than just complain about them, you will be stonewalled. No one will even entertain your questions or suggestions. You have no mentor in any capacity within the university, so there is no one within the system to whom you can turn. The Secretary may simply not let you schedule an appointment with the Dean, and if you persist, she may simply not allow you to register for classes, effectively rendering you incapable of staying at the University. Thus, even if you would like to try the help effect change, you are unable. You are, for all intents and purposes, at the whim of The System, being tossed and blown about in this new land, just trying to hold on for dear life as you seek to get an education.

This is the situation in which all of the students at the English-speaking medical school here in Iasi find themselves. I wish I were kidding, and I wish I were exaggerating. Some of the luckier students already know students in the program, either family members or friends from their home countries. And in general, the international community looks after one another. But the situation is nothing short of shocking and shameful. Let me be crystal clear- I am in NO WAY being critical of Romania or Romanians in general. And I am also in no way by extension making a comparison that insinuates that America doesn’t have anything like this or have other equally shameful problems. I am looking only at this individual situation, and while I cannot help but compare this situation to what I experienced at my own individual University, I think (hope) most people would agree that this is disgraceful.

In light of this situation, it is understandable that a decent amount of what our team does is advocate for the students. Whether it’s showing them how to read the gas meter so they don’t get charged for gas they didn’t use, taking them cookies while they’re waiting in line to register for classes, or connecting them with our Romanian friends to help translate visa documents or negotiate with landlords, we are here to serve these students. Which is not to say that we’re excellent or awesome for doing so, it’s just that we love them so much, so in addition to pointing people towards Christ, we desire to love the students tangibly and with the mercy that Jesus so often talks about.

After five months of observing and absorbing this situation, I don’t have an answer. It’s a big problem, and one that has no easy solution. I suppose if it did someone older and wiser than myself would have figured it out. The University employees and officials have absolutely zero incentive to change- that would only cause them more work, and they are not in any way inconvenienced by the current system. The students have no ability to enact change, as noted previously. So what will it take? My idealist twenty-something American self tends to think that if an objective “third-party” of sorts came in-  someone with a mind for efficiency, a heart for the students, and an understanding of The System- that maybe, just maybe, something could happen. But maybe that’s just the problem. I come at this with such a drastically different perspective, that I am totally naïve to think that it could be any other way. I would like- LOVE in fact- to come up with some way to help in a meaningful way, but as of this point I just have no ideas. 

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