Monday, October 30, 2006

The Daily Journal: Student returns from Transylvania changed

Student returns from Transylvania changed

Impale Dracula's heart. That's how you kill him. Everybody knows that.
But when Bram Stoker made Transylvania the setting for history's most creative literary execution, he didn't know 24-year-old literature student Bethany Benoche would have her own heart pricked on a pilgrimage to that land.
She returned last month to Bourbonnais from a nine-month Study Abroad program in the epicenter of the Transylvanic region: Sighisoara (sig-e-shwar-ah), Romania. Language and history courses may have been the primary plan, but it was social service -- showing gypsy women how to read, assisting children in an after-school day care -- that wrought unexpected change.
"I went there thinking America sucks because we're so closed off from the world," Benoche said. "But I realized I like the mindset of America. Our optimism. A confidence."
Modern Romania isn't so self-assured. About 400 years of suppression and surveillance by the Greeks, Turks and Soviets will do that to you. And 50 years under Stalin's Romanian front man, Ceasesca, still leaves a dark shadow on the people, a national inferiority complex, even though he was executed without trial in the 1989 "December Revolution" against communist rule.
"It's like they have a communism hangover," she said. "They never had confidence to be independent, to rule themselves."

Infant democracies are always haunted for a while. One of three were informants under Communism, so "it's a national paranoia, with all sorts of white collar corruption. They're a democracy without morality. Everyone expects bribes. Tutors. Doctors. Nobody studies for college exams because they can give bribes to get in."
In fact, records from the European Economic Union (EEU) reveal rampant corruption barred Romania from membership since the original application in 1995. And while the EEU finally opened its doors on Oct. 17, a monitoring report threatens sanctions like bans on food exports if corruption is not controlled.
Benoche saw goods smuggled into the country from Istanbul, bus riders and drivers alike. And while she felt the streets were safe, the imprint of post-communist Romania marked even her.
"I found I'm not as independent and secure as I thought."
But her courage is necessary, so far as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is concerned. The same month Benoche departed for Romania, Rice stood in the Benjamin Franklin Room of the White House to tell a summit of U.S. university presidents that international education is tantamount to diplomacy in a global village.
"Today, every American studying abroad is an ambassador for our nation, an individual who represents the true nature of our people." As countries "struggle to embrace democratic reform, American students must be at the forefront of our engagement, ... preparing to understand the peoples who will help define the 21st century."
Rice illustrated through an encounter with a Romanian woman from Timishoara who suffered under Ceasesca.
"I told her about my experience in losing a little classmate in the church that was bombed at 16th Street (in Birmingham, Ala.) in September of 1963, and I suddenly realized that across this vast divide there was a common experience that brought us together."
Little wonder Congress passed Resolution 308 to designate 2006 as the "Year of Study Abroad." The measure affirms that Study Abroad can "create goodwill" for U.S. interests around the world. And President Bush launched the National Security Language Intiative in support of international communion.
Meanwhile, Transylvania locals are unsure whether they want Western ways. For example, citizens fought plans by aspiring capitalists to exploit Drac's legend, pandering to tourists, with a Vampire University theme park, outfitted with blood colored cotton candy and spooky forests.
"They didn't want (the theme park)," Benoche said, "but you still see blue jeans and cell phones in the younger generation, even while their parents are peasants. ... They're trying to find their own identity."
And so is Benoche. Travel does that to a person. But you don't have to ask her to find out. Just look in her closet. A gypsy outfit and carpet purse tell the story.
Dr. Gregg Chenoweth is a communications professor at Olivet Nazarene University. He can be reached at One University Avenue, Bourbonnais, IL 60914.


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