Students embrace program as a step on the path to EU integration
(Gustavo Payan photo)
Macedonian university students participated in a recent focus group organized by the Youth Educational Forum. The focus group sought to identify popular perceptions of various forms of corruption in Macedonia's system of higher education.
Gustavo Payan, a resident of Somerville, is an International Program Associate for Education Development Center, Inc., a Newton-based nonprofit organization with projects addressing education, health, and economic development in 35 countries. Payan recently returned from Macedonia, where EDC is implementing a program that seeks to reduce corrupt practices in higher education.
By Gustavo Payan
SKOPJE, Macedonia -- I was traveling to Skopje to check in on our anti-corruption project in Macedonia, part of the Eastern Europe and Eurasia Social Legacy Program. The program, a broad initiative funded by the United States Agency for International Development and implemented by EDC, seeks to help public and private groups in these countries identify and resolve social problems.
Aleksander, one of the youth leaders of EDC's partner in Macedonia, the Youth Educational Forum, met me at the airport. The Forum, which enjoys a reputation as a strong, professional organization, is a local NGO that promotes democracy and good governance, conflict resolution, and civic engagement among Macedonian youth.
Aleksander's first task was to help me find a place to stay. My options in Skopje, Macedonia's capital, included some big international hotel chains and little Hotel 903, a family-run establishment with 6 rooms, centrally located, with Internet.
I didn’t have to think twice. We drove straight to Hotel 903, where I stayed for one-third the cost and had the chance to spend time with a Macedonian family.
At the hotel, the owners welcomed me warmly and took me to the restaurant next door, “Toto,” also a family business. It was Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, but Macedonians were also observing the St. Tripun holiday, a celebration of wine.
Inside Toto, the aroma of kebobs and other grilled meats mixed with a strong smell of tobacco and baking bread. People were celebrating in groups of up to 10, talking and laughing with no constraints. The noise was deafening. Despite the language barriers, I couldn’t help but feel good in the midst of so much happiness. I couldn’t have been off to a better start in this country.
For the past year, we have been working in Macedonia and other countries in the region to help young people combat corruption in education by raising awareness of the problem, its causes, and effects. Among the more common forms cited by students is the payment of bribes for university admission, grades, and diplomas. One of our goals is to promote a dialogue among students, universities, and program donors throughout the region so that they may share ideas as they develop solutions to this problem. Among the policies we promote are codes of conduct and ethics for students, teachers, and administrative staff at universities.
The following day my Youth Educational Forum colleagues Martin and Kate arranged a casual tour of the city, warning it would be quiet because it was Sunday. They were right. We visited the city’s center, where we saw, among other landmarks, a memorial to Mother Teresa, who was born in Skopje.
(Gustavo Payan photo)
Skopje's city center, as seen from the Vardar River.
Martin is 20, studies Political Science at the Saint Cyril and Methodius University, and shares with me a passion for photography – except that he already has an exhibit of his work at the Macedonian National Gallery. Kate is a law student about to graduate who spent a year in the United States as an exchange student.
“We are trying to get more young people in Macedonia involved in democracy and activism,” she told me. “It’s important if we want to continue our path towards EU integration. That’s why we think this project to promote transparency and develop codes of conduct is an excellent way to prove we’re moving forward.” The three of us chatted as we crossed the Vardar River and ventured into the Old Bazaar, all the way to the Kale Fortress.
Later that night at dinner I met Ilija, 26, and Maja, 22, the president and general secretary of YEF respectively. They had just returned from the south where they are working to bring together youth from the country's two main ethnicities – Macedonian and Albanian. They explained that different schools and schedules are being developed for the two ethnic groups, and as a result, they are being segregated from each other with barriers being raised between the two.
YEF is conducting seminars, public debates, and other activities to get both groups in the same room, and get the conversation going. “We are seeking ways to bring them together so they realize they share a lot of the same interests and worries and we all can find common ground,” Ilija said.
For dinner, it was on to Kaj Marshalot, a restaurant decorated in the spirit of Yugoslavia and its leader, Josip Broz Tito. I tried their famous Macedonian beans, cheese, peppers, kebobs, sausages, chicken, and of course the signature wine, Vranac. We left past 11 pm. Ilija and Maja had organized a busy agenda for me the next day, meeting with international donors and discussing our program to bring universities, students, and private businesses on board in our efforts to improve transparency at the university level.
Of course, in a very Macedonian style they had also included social events. In less than four days I twice went to the National Gallery for exhibitions and a reception. They took me to a trendy Mexican bar and to a Turkish coffee house. I also attended the event where the president of Macedonia, Branko Crvenkovski, and the EU ambassador to Macedonia, Erwan Fouere, opened the “Spring Day for Europe.”
Spring Day is becoming a tradition in EU countries as they host youth-led celebrations and activities in their respective communities. In this Balkan country, Spring Day is an initiative led by YEF and several other national youth organizations, a demonstration of the entrepreneurial and fierce spirit of a new generation of Macedonians.
To learn more about EDC's work around the world, please visit www.edc.org. For information on how you can contribute to Passport, please email the Globe's assistant foreign editor, Kenneth Kaplan, at K_Kaplan@globe.com.