Williams has a unique program in the Republic of Georgia, which offers students the opportunity to engage in three-week-long internships in any field during the Winter Study Period. Students have worked in the Georgian Parliament, helped in humanitarian relief organizations like Save the Children, interned in journalism at The Georgian Times, taught unemployed women computer skills at The Rustavi Project, documented wildlife, studied with a Georgian sculptor, done rounds at the Institute of Cardiology, and learned about transitional economies at the Georgian National Bank. In addition to working in their chosen fields, students experience Georgian culture through museum visits, concerts, lectures, meetings with Georgian students, and excursions. They visit the sacred eleventh-century Cathedral of Sveti-tskhoveli and the twentieth-century Stalin Museum, take the ancient Georgian Military Highway to ski in the Caucasus Range, see the birthplace of the wine grape in Kakheti and the region where Jason sought the Golden Fleece. Participants are housed in pairs with English-speaking families in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city.
Established in 1987 with the help of the Citizen Exchange Council, the Williams College/Tbilisi State University Exchange Program was the first in the country to pair a small liberal-arts institution with a major university in the (then) Soviet Union. The original exchange allowed from fifteen to twenty-five Williams students to spend the January Winter Study Period in Georgia, where, accompanied by two or three Williams faculty members, they were hosted for three weeks by students and faculty from Tbilisi State University. Each fall a group of Tbilisi University students arrived at Williams for a reciprocal visit, giving the Winter Study participants the opportunity to make contacts and to renew friendships from the previous January. Activities in both countries included lectures, cultural events, and excursions.
A semester exchange component was initiated in 1989. Each spring two Williams students were selected to study at Tbilisi State University for one semester; two Georgian students studied at Williams the following fall. The semester exchange was unique for its time in allowing Williams students to live with Georgian families and become fully integrated into Georgian life.
The Georgian students lived in dormitories at Williams and took a regular course load according to their interests.
The Williams/Tbilisi exchange involved some of America’s and Georgia’s most talented students. For the American students, it broadened awareness of a little-known culture; for Georgians, it offered an important opportunity to experience the American educational system firsthand. In 1991, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Georgia experienced a period of severe political unrest and sporadic civil war. Even though we had assurances from the highest levels of government that our students would not be endangered, the Williams College administration felt it unwise to send the Winter Study group, and the program languished for several years before being revived in the mid 1990s. The current program is now set up as a consortium among Williams, Wellesley, and Mt. Holyoke, with six to eight students from each school participating during the January term.
Georgia touched the lives of many program participants. Here are a few who became particularly involved in the country:
Steven Fagin received his Master’s degree in Russian Studies at the University of Michigan and left Harvard Law School to join the Foreign Service as a Russian and Eurasian specialist. He served as U.S. Consul at the American Embassy in Tbilisi and at embassies in Egypt, Bosnia, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan. He is currently the Political-Economic Counselor at the US Embassy in Belgium.
Lisa Kaestner received a Master’s degree from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, then returned to Georgia for a job with UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, a USAID-funded organization. She then became regional director of the Eurasia Foundation, responsible for programs in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaidzhan. Lisa is currently working for the World Bank in Washington, having moved there after nearly a decade of living in Georgia.
Daniel Kunin worked for many years in Tbilisi for the National Democratic Institute, also largely funded by USAID. A non-profit organization associated with the U.S. Democratic Party, NDI sets up democracy-building programs abroad. Daniel’s work involved political party building, the holding of democratic elections, and parliamentary operations. He left Georgia to enroll in a joint degree program with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy for an MALD and the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth for an MBA. He returned to Georgia and is currently Senior Advisor to the Georgian Government. See Georgia On My Six-Weight Line.
Eric Johnson worked for several years as a regional administrator for the International Red Cross, based in Kutaisi, Georgia. He completed a joint academic and business degree program through Cornell and Dartmouth and is now working in finance in Minneapolis.
Emily Rees served in Tbilisi as regional representative for the International Orthodox Christian Charities, another USAID-funded relief organization.
* Photos by Archil Kikodze