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Bay Area's new startup: Russian democracy

Stanford hosts a meeting of US and Russian college students this week in an effort to create closer ties.

By Paul Van SlambrouckStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 4, 2000



PALO ALTO, CALIF.

On a warm spring day, the menthol fragrance of eucalyptus groves wafts across the leafy campus of Stanford University here.

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But even more pronounced is the smell of money from nearby Silicon Valley, the lodestar for the young and hungry here at one of America's most elite universities, where students might as well be writing "How to Become a Millionaire Before Your First Student Loan Falls Due."

Yet if Stanford is the epitome of what some bemoan as the apathetic and wealth-obsessed culture on American campuses these days, it is proof that a broader social consciousness is also alive.

This week, students from around the United States and Russia will converge on this Bay Area campus to talk about community service in their countries. They'll also talk about how the young can help the two countries get along better.

It is the only student-led initiative of its kind and proof that some start-ups have nothing to do with commerce. For some of the nation's best and brightest, good works are as attractive as big paychecks.

Network of young leaders

The project is called Democratic Partners: US-Russia Student Leadership Summit, and it will bring 25 university students from Russia to meet for eight days with 15 US students. Democratic Partners will live on beyond the conference and attempt to build a global network of young leaders, all committed to public service, by getting American students and their counterparts from a different country together each year.

"It's all about showing that 'for profit' doesn't always mean commercial profit. It can also have to do with public service," says Matt Spence, a Stanford senior and chairman of the program.

Mr. Spence and another Stanford Partners organizer, Stephen Smith, can tick off a number of friends who have joined dotcoms in the Silicon Valley gold rush. Some have done so even before graduating, unable to risk what seem like sure-fire fortunes.

"People ask what the No. 1 issue on campus is these days, and it's really hard to find anything at all," says Mr. Smith.

But Spence is wary of the word apathetic. "I'm not sure it's apathy. I mean, what is there to be apathetic about? My first political memory is of the Berlin Wall falling, and it just seems like everything since has just gotten better and better."

In a time of peace and prosperity, both agree, American students take the peace for granted and look for their share of the prosperity.

Yet Spence, striving to complete a master's degree in international relations during his four years as an undergraduate, says his passion for community service and grass-roots diplomacy has come from inspiring teachers, a summer spent working for the National Security Council (NSC) in Washington, and a trip to Russia.

"There is such an opportunity now," says Spence, referring to the fledgling democracies seeking root in Russia and a number of other countries around the globe.

Just by meeting, these students accomplish a diplomatic goal by building relationships and creating a network of young leaders. Spence got a taste of official diplomacy at the NSC when he was involved in the planning of President Clinton's trip to Russia in the fall of 1998. He suggested that Clinton meet with student leaders in Russia.

But the trip was overwhelmed by the Russian crisis du jour (the near collapse of the Russian currency) and the meeting with students never took place. "There was a crisis, but there is always a crisis," says Spence, who came away from the experience convinced that a more grass-roots form of exchange, particularly between young students, was the way to go.

Involved in the community

Yet the real meat of the conference is an exchange of ideas and planning for community projects in each country, ranging from legal-aid clinics and a refugee-resource center near the Chechen border, to inner-city employment programs in the United States.

One idea proposed for the conference is the establishment of an exchange of military cadets between the two countries, with Russian cadets attending a major American military academy and their US counterparts doing the same in Russia.

Conference organizers have acted like typical Silicon Valley startups and raised seed money. The group raised $120,000 from two venerable Silicon Valley institutions: the David and Lucile Packard and William and Flora Hewlett foundations. Stanford University also kicked in $25,000.

The project drew 125 applications from across Russia, though only 25 could be accepted. The 15 American students come from a variety of schools, including Georgetown University, the US Military Academy, and Williams College.

Adding stature to the project, former Secretary of State George Shultz will host a kickoff reception for the conference. The advisers to Democratic Partners are Condoleezza Rice, foreign-policy adviser to George W. Bush, and Coit Blacker, a former Russia adviser to Clinton.

"We saw this as a unique opportunity to introduce Russian student leaders to democracy in action," says Hugh Burroughs of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. "We were glad to help foster the kind of public-service instinct we see in this effort."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society