When Anna Nejedla, GS '15, arrived in New York from the Czech Republic, she had an especially difficult time finding housing in the city because, she said, she did not have a network of students from her area to reach out to.
When she got to Columbia, Nejedla contacted Czech language professor Christopher Harwood, GSAS '00, who connected her with a group of 10 other students from Central and Eastern Europe. There, she found a home among peers interested in the region who had been similarly confused when coming to the United States for the first time.
“It was very difficult to try to fit into the American community right away, and I feel like most international students are facing the same challenge, which kind of then unites them,” Marek Svoboda, CC '14, said.
But for students from Central and Eastern Europe, something was still missing.
So, Svoboda, Nejedla, and others formed the Columbia University Central and Eastern European Club. The new club aims to bring together students, professors, scholars, and professionals with interest in the region—even as enrollment in classes relating to Central and Eastern Europe has been falling, to the point where entire classes have been canceled.
“The beginning idea was more that we would like to know more people, because there are so few of us here,” Nejedla, who is the club's director of cultural and social events, said. “It's always nice to have someone to talk to. I think this club is basically about networking.”
“At the same time, it's amazing from time to time to just chat with people who have similar backgrounds as you have, and I find it very refreshing,” Filip Tucek, SIPA '15 and one of the club's vice presidents, said.
Anastaslia Grynko, the club's other vice president and a lecturer at Columbia's Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and Eastern European studies, said the new group is for anyone interested in the region, not just students from Central or Eastern Europe.
“The idea is to have a community, which would help people to get more information on the region and find out what is happening between CU and the region,” Grynko said.
Because CUCEE has undergraduate, graduate, and faculty members, it's recognized by the Interschool Governing Board, something Tucek said makes the club unique.
“We don't want to be a student-led group only,” he said. “We want to really work as a connection between professors and students in both directions, because we feel like this might be really helpful.”
The club is forming at a time when interest in Eastern and Central European languages and studies is dwindling at the University. Harwood, who is the club's academic adviser, said one of his Czech classes this fall had just one student.
“It's interesting. I would say there's a peak in interest in the non-Russian Slavic languages in the '90s, when these countries emerged from the shadow of the Soviet Union,” he said.
CUCEE member Ali Kinsella, GSAS '14, said very small classes—between two and six students—were typical of her graduate experience.
“For me it's not really a problem, because I'm getting very, very individualized lectures,” she said. “On the other hand, I know this represents an alarming trend.”
Harwood thinks falling enrollments are part of a wider shift of student interests away from languages and the humanities.
“I have this bad feeling that in the past few years, probably since the economic crises, maybe there's been an overall hit—and I think it's not just a function of small languages, I think it's across the board for languages and the humanities,” he said.
Alan Timberake, director of the East Central European Center, said that regional classes getting dropped due to low enrollment naturally happens from generation to generation.
“And I don't think that's a reflection of the quality of the instruction,” Timberlake, who's also on the CUCEE advisory board, said.
Nevertheless, Timberlake said that the East Central European Center and the Harriman Institute will financially support future CUCEE events. He and Harwood both hope that the club will spark new interest in the region as Central and Eastern European countries join or plan to join the European Union.
“There's going to continue to be this kind of a shared experience in the post-Communist part of Europe, where Hungarians and Czechs are going to have a lot of shared experiences and related, if not identical, perspectives on EU-wide issues, or global issues,” Harwood said. “Maybe one of the best ways to do it, to develop global education, is through areas like this.”
While the East Central European Center and Columbia's other regional institutes were created during the Cold War, professor emeritus Istvan Deak—who headed the Institute on East Central Europe between 1968 and 1979—said the emphasis now is less on Central and Eastern Europe and more on comparative studies, global studies, and other social groups.
“Now, I really feel that it should be made exciting somehow,” he said. “The excitement was provided in our time by political events. ... There was a time when the police came because we invited Romanian professors to talk and the Hungarians came to demonstrate.”
Svoboda hopes the club will continue to connect and help students long after he graduates.
“Connecting with prospective students is one of the most important things we will mostly do in the second semester,” Svoboda said. “It is because we want the group to last after we leave the university. The continuity is absolutely vital for us.”
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