Ildikó Szigeti is facilitating the exchange of ideas, cultures and knowledge between Central European students and their Western counterparts through electronic mail and the Internet.
The New Idea
Ildikó Szigeti recognized that there is an increasing demand and need by Hungarian students to travel abroad and interact with foreign students in order to build their own civil society as well as to further their educational interests. Unfortunately, prevailing economic constraints make it very difficult for the vast majority to fulfill their dreams. Fortunately, the appetite for exchange is reciprocal: university students from the United States, the United Kingdom and other Western countries have a great interest in studying and traveling in Hungary and other Central and East European countries. In response, Ildikó has used technology to develop a cutting-edge, unique program called X-CHANGE to facilitate interchanges, at a relatively low cost, between students from Central and Eastern Europe and their counterparts in the West.X-CHANGE uses the Internet and electronic mail (e-mail) to build the necessary bridges that achieve its programmatic goals of helping students get to know other cultures better by providing them with international contacts: facilitating members' travel by establishing a system through which students can find free accommodation in each others' countries and giving students the opportunity to practice foreign languages in a native environment.
Prior to 1989, the bureaucratic nature of the Hungarian government and the lack of hard currency made it very difficult for Hungarian students to travel and study in Western countries. Although it has become easy for Hungarians to gather the necessary documents to go abroad, the lack of hard currency is still a very difficult obstacle for most to overcome. For example, a Hungarian can only convert the equivalent of $1,000 in Forints into hard currency per year. However, upon their arrival in a foreign country, Hungarians and many other nationals are required by immigration officials to demonstrate a substantial supply of local currency and/or a letter of invitation from a citizen of the country. The political and economic changes of the 1990's have increased the number of students interested in studying abroad. Many wish to learn English or German to further their professional development. After 40 years of underdevelopment, the former Soviet bloc countries need a new breed of managers, engineers, technicians and other professionals who are well-versed in the methodologies that prepare them to be successful in the highly competitive post-Cold War economy. The preferred destinations for young Central Europeans seeking training in high-tech and engineering fields are clearly Western Europe and the U.S.
As the integration of Europe deepens, it is essential that Hungarians who wish to learn more about different cultures have the opportunity to observe and live in other countries. Xenophobia is rising in the region, as evidenced by the growing number of ultra-nationalistic political parties and neo-Nazi groups; the understanding that grows from interaction between Central Europeans and other cultures is of critical value. Hungary's future civic leadership will be shaped by its students and the breadth of their understanding will benefit the entire society. In Ildikó's words, "For 40 years we did not have democratic institutions in Hungary, and in developing democratic practices, first-hand experiences are invaluable."
Though the need to send students abroad has never been greater, because Central and East European governments are in a period of fiscal constraint, there is very little money available for scholarships and government-funded grants. In her work as a teacher trainer at the ELTE (Budapest University of Arts and Sciences) Center for English Teacher Training, Ildikó has found that the political changes have not yielded better opportunities or more scholarships for students in Hungary: "A few scholarships were available, but limited in number and elitist as a result."
In 1989, when Ildikó was a university student training to become an English teacher, she wanted to visit an English-speaking country to obtain first-hand experience with the culture and language she was studying and preparing to teach. Since the number of scholarships available to undergraduates was extremely low in Hungary, she tried to find a self-help solution. She contacted an East European studies department at a university in England, guessing that students there would be motivated to come to Hungary. She managed to set up an informal exchange visit with a student, spent two months in England and hosted her partner for a similar time in Hungary. "It wasn't only the language practice, and learning about a culture through interacting with people that I gained from this trip, but I saw, for example, how a student union functions. I haven't formally attended any university courses, but I have learnt a lot in my field of second language acquisition from informally interacting with students in my field and by going to better-equipped libraries. I also made a lot of friends who have come to visit me since then, and whose picture of Hungary has also changed significantly. I feel these exchanges take our politically re-uniting world forward."
Years later, as an instructor in the English Teacher Training program at ELTE, she responded to the continuing paucity of support for student travel by institutionalizing the informal exchange she had set up years before into X-CHANGE. Her main aim was to create a network of an infinite number of students who wanted to exchange visits; if they were able to stay in each other's homes, they could eliminate the most expensive factor, accommodation, from their travel budgets. She contacted various departments and student unions all over the world to involve them in the X-CHANGE program. Her original vision was to create printed booklets for different countries with information on individual applicants (age, interests, how long they would like to travel to which countries and how long they would put up their partner in return, etc.), which she could send to foreign schools.
Right from the beginning Ildikó wanted to create a system that was not dependent on outside support but self-supporting from small membership fees. After careful budgeting she realized that the paper, mailing and human resource costs of a booklet program were too high. Meanwhile she saw how extensively her students were using the Internet, and its expanding and free access for educational institutions gave her the idea of a software-managed X-CHANGE database that could be reached free from anywhere in the world. The use of e-mail for primary contact would ensure fast and effective communication for setting up exchange visits, and the omission of members' phone number and home addresses from the X-CHANGE database would ensure privacy to subscribers.
In exchange for publicity on X-CHANGE's homepage (http://www.btk.elte.hu/~seas/xchange), Ildikó negotiated a low-cost arrangement with a computer company to create the necessary software. Any student from any country in the world can apply for the X-CHANGE program by filling in an application form on the homepage. Once the applicant's membership fee of US $10 arrives, an e-mail automatically issues a password. Each country and U.S. state has a separate password-protected databank on the program's homepage, and members can browse through the information on other members, choose like-minded partners and set up their exchange visits with them through e-mail. The two criteria for membership are status as students of higher education and at least an intermediate knowledge of English, in which all the documents are written. Since English is the lingua franca of X-CHANGE, it thus provides members with certainty of communication and the ability to practice their English as well as whatever other languages they speak.
The program does not attempt to organize exchange of formal tuition at foreign universities. Describing her own exchange experience, Ildikó emphasizes the value of informal learning and feels that she had to make a decision to create a manageable program which exploits this value. She feels if members visit other countries, discuss issues, make friends and develop and deepen their knowledge and images of other cultures, her program significantly contributes to a wider awareness of global issues and respect for other cultures.
Ildikó generated her start-up costs from donations, in-kind contributions and from volunteer effort. Later, income began to be generated from user fees. She has traded X-CHANGE homepage publicity for help from institutions and businesses. The transfer of membership fees from abroad into Hungary was an early problem, because it would have cost $25 to process the $10 membership fee! Ildikó negotiated with the Hungarian Postabank, which agreed to waive the fees for clearing checks sent to X-CHANGE in exchange for publicity through the X-CHANGE network publications. So far she has received help from the Center for English Teacher Training (free use of an office space and a computer), the student union of the School of British and American Studies (volunteer work in creating the first Hungarian X-CHANGE databank booklet) the British Council, Budapest, International House, London (travel cost of a contact-building trip), International House World Organization, Budapest, a for-profit educational center (donating the services of their solicitor to form the X-CHANGE association), CompuServe (free and full Internet access) and the Ministry of Education of Hungary (organization of a press conference).
Ildikó has short- and long-term plans with her program. She will quickly expand her program into Latin America, Asia, Africa, New Zealand and Australia. She will use the potential of the homepage to create an electronic magazine called X-CHANGE NEWS with contributions from members sharing their ideas and giving voice to their travel experiences. She will open a dialogue with other students on starting civil organizations and give advice via e-mail based on her experiences.
In the near future, Ildikó foresees the creation of a similar database for workers in the civil sector. As she has for students, she will facilitate the exchange of information among member nongovernmental organization members and facilitate travel to explore each other's projects in person. Ildikó believes that an X-CHANGE type of database will be an invaluable tool which could make the networking efforts of the sector more effective. She would also like to invite her nongovernmental organization members to send descriptions of their projects to the X-CHANGE NEWS. The shared readership with university students can sensitize future professionals to the problems and possible solutions sought by the civil sector, attract qualified, motivated individuals and stimulate general civic awareness in Central Europe. She has already started to build contacts with international nongovernmental organization support agencies.
Ildikó plans to assist other civil organizations working in less developed parts of Hungary to obtain computers and modems and set them up in village libraries. She has made contacts with organizations that help different ethnic groups in Hungary, and in the future she envisions helping younger students, professionals, retired people and many other groups who would benefit from traveling abroad. She is aware that in the initial phases her program assists the already relatively privileged group of university students, but this was the consequence of her initial experiences and contacts, and only her starting point. However, by motivating future teachers to use the Internet and by running the database on the world wide web, she has taken a step towards democratizing the medium of the next century, and she looks forward to opening up this medium to groups with more limited resources.
Ildikó studied at the English Department of ELTE, the Budapest University of Arts and Sciences and trained primary and secondary school English teachers at the Center for English Teacher Training in Budapest (CETT). As a student, she was involved in organizing various social events at her department, and after her visit to England she initiated the setting up of the student union as a teacher at CETT. She helped students to organize democratic elections and then facilitated the development of the elected body. She helped this elected board to develop effective democratic practices, such as organizing efficient meetings, writing an agenda, electing a chair, taking minutes, writing a memo, creating action plans, etc. She felt that learning democratic practices was an important part of her trainees' education after the previous 40 years of Hungarian history, and she also discussed the possibilities of her trainees passing on student union initiatives to primary and secondary schools as future teachers of English.
One of the areas the student union frequently discussed was the lack of study trip opportunities available for Hungarians. Ildikó has always believed in self-help solutions and that is why she started the X-CHANGE program, which is based on her own self-help experience.