Western Maryland College has fewer students than most Baltimore high schools. It can't recruit top-seeded athletes, and doesn't care to. But the quiet school on the edge of Westminster lays claim to something no other college in the state can: A branch campus in Eastern Europe.
Four years ago, the college muscled aside two other schools to open a campus in Budapest. This week, the institution will hold commencement in Westminster for its inaugural class -- 19 students who have added an international flair to the serene beauty of the Maryland campus.
"They wanted it, and we had it -- market-based economics in a liberal arts college," said Robert H. Chambers III, president of WMC. "I saw this as a unique opportunity to expand into a rapidly changing country."
As the seniors wrap up their last week here, with trips to Fells Point and Oriole Park, Hungarian diplomats are flocking to Westminster -- population 15,000 -- for the graduation ceremony.
When the foreign dignitaries arrive, they're sure to experience the culture shock that the students felt when they landed in Westminster two years ago.
Graced by eight bridges that cross the Danube river, Budapest is home to three symphony orchestras, and many theater and opera houses. Trendy cafes and elegant restaurants are set among ruins from the capital of Roman Pannonia, where Valentinian II was proclaimed emperor in A.D. 375.
Although picturesque, with tree-lined curbs and Victorian-styled lanterns, Westminster's Main Street can't compare with Budapest's Vaci Utca -- the upscale shopping equivalent of New York's Fifth Avenue.
"I don't think of Main Street as a city center. Westminster is more like a village," said Reka Reichard, 23, an economics and business administration major. "In Budapest, we are used to a big life. There's a lot to do. You can ride the tram and go anywhere. Here, there is nothing."
No night life. No majestic museums. Not even good bread.
"The bread here is like a sponge," said Reichard. "We had a very difficult time with it, but we are OK now. We've adjusted."
When they first arrived in Westminster two years ago, Reichard and her fiance, 23-year-old Zoltan Menyhart, so desperately longed for a hearty loaf of bread that they risked their lives in pursuit of one.
The couple sprinted across Route 140 -- a five-lane highway -- to get to the local Superfresh.
"People were staring at us like we were crazy," Menyhart said. "A cop even stopped us. We explained that we were college students from Hungary, and he let us go."
The campus of 1,500 students proved an easier adjustment. The students admired WMC's brick walkways and manicured lawns -- a stark contrast to their urban surroundings in Budapest. Trips to Wal-Mart and invitations for home-cooked meals helped, too.
"And we were able to really get to know our professors," adds Sandor Zwack, 24, a political science major whose father fled Hungary when the Communists took control in 1948. He returned from Italy 41 years later, after the Soviets left Hungary.
Another refugee who returned to Hungary played a key role in the establishment of WMC Budapest, college officials said.
George Varga, WMC class of 1961 and now a college trustee, returned to his native land in 1992 as president of Tungsram, Central Europe's major light bulb manufacturing company. He is to Hungary what Bill Gates is to the United States, the students said.
"When I met with Budapest officials in Washington, I dropped Varga's name -- and boom! We were at the top of their list," said Chambers. "They couldn't believe Varga was an alumnus."
Unlike courses offered by other American universities in Eastern Europe, WMC Budapest is not a foreign exchange or study abroad program. Its students, recruited from around the globe, spend two years in Hungary and then come to Westminster for their junior and senior years -- a requirement for all WMC Budapest students.
The satellite campus has grown to include more than 70 students. It is accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools and occupies several classrooms in a high-rise that once housed the Communist education department.
Some students joke that it's still bugged.
Classes in Budapest are taught in English by European and U.S. faculty, Chambers said. He visits every fall and spring.
"I enjoyed WMC because I really got to know my professors," Zwack said. "In the state universities in Italy and Hungary, the teachers seem to lose their enthusiasm. They don't try to form personal relationships with their students."
Zwack, who joined the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity during his first semester in Westminster, said he enrolled at WMC Budapest because "I had always wanted to earn an American degree, and the idea of being a 'guinea pig' intrigued me."
Over time, Zwack and his fellow classmates have come to appreciate Westminster's bucolic beauty and the practical advantages of taking classes in a small city. But there have been no more forays across Route 140.
Instead, three of the students pooled their money and picked up a weathered 1986 Dodge Colt for $1,500.
The Colt has been their salvation, their only means of escape from the rural villages of Carroll County. On many weekends, the students traveled beyond Carroll's rolling farmlands to Baltimore, Washington or New York.
"We wanted to experience all that the United States has to offer," Menyhart said. "That's why we chose to come to this school."
Pub Date: 5/20/98