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25 Years of CIEE in Budapest: An Interview with Resident Director Elizabeth Simon

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In celebration of the 25th anniversary of CIEE study abroad in Budapest, Hungary, we look back at the history of the study center and how it’s changed over the years. To find out more, we spoke with Elizabeth Simon, Resident Director of the CIEE Study Center in Budapest, Hungary.

Elizabeth has an educational background in history and international relations, which led her to working in the field of international education with CIEE. Born in Hungary and eager to return home after studying in the United States, Elizabeth applied for an opening at the Budapest study center in 1992 and has worked there since as a resident director, professor, and overall student mentor. Over the years, she has seen the study center grow, students transform, and new partnerships develop. To commemorate the anniversary, Elizabeth shares with us the history of the study center:

“Budapest is the best kept secret, but now the secret is getting out!”
-Elizabeth Simon

The History of CIEE in Budapest
“The CIEE Study Center opened in 1990 and the first students arrived in the fall of 1990. This happened, of course, at a historic time for Hungary, just after the regime change when Hungary became a free country again with a democratically elected government. So students came at the very beginning of the new era for the country… the region in Hungary was just recreating itself in a way—building a new democracy, changing from a centrally planned economy to market economy—those were very, very exciting times for the American students.”

Since its opening in 1990, CIEE has been able to successfully bring students to Budapest each semester. Over the last few years, there has been an increase in interest for the Budapest study program. While the center marks its 25th anniversary, it also marks a record number of students this semester. Students are particularly drawn to the volunteer work and internships available on the program. Elizabeth notes, “I’m really pleased that an overwhelming majority of students are interested in some kind of engagement outside of the academic work. We have had as high as 70-75% of all students doing either for-credit or not-for-credit internship or volunteer work while they’re here.” Opportunities for students have mostly been in the nonprofit sector but, in recent years, has expanded to include private sector opportunities as well, specifically in startup companies.

The CIEE Study Center in Budapest has not only been a place of learning and growth for students, but also for faculty and administrators as well. For many years, the center has hosted International Faculty Development Seminars (IFDS)—a CIEE program that provides faculty and administrators from institutions of higher education with access to the rich academics, diverse intercultural experiences, and innovative approaches to learning and problem-solving that enhance syllabi, internationalize curricula, and increase global understanding on their campuses.

A True Cultural Exchange
As CIEE’s presence in Budapest continued to grow, so did the opportunities for cultural exchange. CIEE developed a partnership with the Hungarian-American Enterprise Scholarship Fund (HAESF) to create scholarship-based opportunities for talented Hungarians to gain professional experience in the United States, strengthening ties between the U.S. and Hungary. Not too long after, a similar partnership was formed between CIEE and the Baltic American Freedom Foundation as well as the Slovak-American Foundation. Those partnerships helped create a center of true exchange in and out of Budapest and beyond. Elizabeth, who was instrumental in this effort, offers these words, “It’s important to note that the Budapest program is truly an exchange program in that we are not only bringing American students here, but we are also sending talented Hungarians to the United States. For 11 years, we have supported around 430 talented Hungarians. […] This kind of exchange that we are able to do in Hungary has benefitted both sides. Our American students are actually able to do some internships with some of the HAESF alumni that have returned from the U.S. […] and so this has been a wonderful benefit to the study center.”

25 Years of Quality Exchange
“I love what I’m doing and I’m still here after so many years,” says Elizabeth, “The program is running strongly, we have an increasing number of students, and we have an excellent partnership with Corvinus University, our host institution here. I think a wonderful attestation to the quality of the program here in Budapest and what kind of experiences our students are getting from the program is that many of them would like to return eventually, at least just to visit.” Elizabeth shared that her most memorable moments working with CIEE are when students return or reconnect with the study center staff. “When they tell you how much one semester meant to them and what changes the study abroad experience brought in their life… that is truly memorable and it just makes you feel that your work is valuable.”

Many students who studied with CIEE in Budapest have kept in touch, returned to visit, and have even decided to pursue careers in international education. Furthermore, among CIEE Budapest alumni are 6 Fulbright awardees to Hungary. Elizabeth notes, “I think that’s a wonderful record… that we have 6 Fulbright awardees who were previous CIEE students here in Budapest. It speaks highly of the quality of students who are here and it also speaks highly of the program we are able to provide and maintain here in Budapest.”

A Special Anniversary
“It’s a special celebration because we have been able to build a strong organization here with wonderful partners, colleagues, and teachers who have supported us, and stayed with us, for all these years,” Elizabeth notes, “and it’s as much of a celebration of their work as CIEE’s commitment to stay in a country where, at times, there were fewer students.”

CIEE is proud to celebrate 25 years of study abroad in Budapest. We look forward to seeing more students learn, grow, and experience Hungary and the impact of study abroad. As Elizabeth says, “Learning about a new culture, about another country’s history, culture, politics, and society, in the location—that has to be the best way of learning.”

This article is written in celebration of the 25th anniversary of CIEE study abroad in Budapest. An official 25th anniversary event will be held at Corvinus University in Budapest on March 4, 2016. To take part in the virtual celebration, join us on social media @CIEEalumni.

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