BELGRADE, SERBIA — At the University of Novi Sad, the scene isn't much different from that of an American college. Students mingle in the hallways and bustle in over-crowded cafeterias. It would be easy to forget that the university is in Serbia, or that there had been a war here which devastated the area.
Yet after 12 years of fighting with its neighbors, strife between ethnic minorities, and political opposition within the country, Serbia and Montenegro are slowly recovering from former President Slobodan Milosevic's regime. Now that economic sanctions have been lifted and isolation from the war has faded, the regions are renewing their international focus on education by partnering with American institutions.
Some Serbian faculty and postdoctoral students already made their way across the Atlantic to America earlier this year, taking the first tentative steps before more student participation happens on both sides over the next several years.
Delaware State University in Dover was the first US university to sign official agreements with all three major universities in Serbia and Montenegro. It has already begun cooperation in applied mathematics at the doctorate level, and plans to expand to undergraduate exchanges in the fall. The main motivation: to promote scientific research at Delaware State as well as democracy in the Balkans.
"Scientifically, this is untapped in the United States," says Allen Sessoms, president of Delaware State University. "With an academic exchange, we can create a mutually beneficial relationship that will allow us to advance in areas such as economic development and scientific research."
While American universities are looking to benefit from Serbian graduates' expertise, Serbian universities hope that these initiatives will stabilize the region and give a needed international focus.
"We have undergraduate and grad-level programs and would like to open the doors to future cooperation with US universities in areas such as telecom, math, bio, and computer science," says G. Milovanovic, president of the University of Nis.
But Serbia isn't exactly one of the top destinations among American students. This is due, in part, to the stigma attached to the Balkans. Its postcommunist status and years of war make some students and parents wary.
At least one American educator, however, feels differently.
It is absolutely safe for students to study in Serbia," says Elaine Papoulias, director of the Kokkalis Program of Southeastern and East-Central Europe at Harvard University. "We don't have an ongoing institutional agreement there, but what I try to do is recruit graduate students from Serbia ... and encourage our students who have no prior experience in the Balkans to do research and undertake internships there."
Many students find Western Europe, with its long history and tradition of academic alliances, more enticing than Serbia, says Ms. Papoulias. "On the other side, our students from Serbia have been stellar and have done so much great work to democratize Serbia."
Still, some animosities linger.
At the University of Novi Sad, student Nikolina Jankovich expressed her frustration at how Serbia was portrayed in the American media. "CNN and Fox News told so many lies about the Balkans and Serbia," says Ms. Jankovich. "Americans think Serbs are barbarians, but we're not."
The gray, concrete buildings of downtown Belgrade, whose façades were obliterated by NATO bombs, stand out as ugly reminders of the conflict that divided the former Yugoslavia. As jarring as it is to confront the after-effects of war, Serbia could be a testing ground for US institutions studying in economic development, much as Germany was after World War II.
With more than 38,000 students, the University of Novi Sad, in the autonomous region of Vojvodina, has enough influence to impact the development of democracy.
"We are working on multicultural tolerance and starting to educate students about democracy and peace at an early age," says Radmila Marinkovich-Neduchin, president of the University of Novi Sad.
During a decade of sanctions, a joint project with UCLA in material science and technology stopped. Serbian universities were required to sever links with scientific labs such as FERMILAB near Chicago. But Novi Sad retained its Western orientation by teaching all classes in the School of Medicine in English.
"On our side, there isn't much money after what we've been through. But somehow I believe we offer quality and a nice ambiance for students," Ms. Marinkovich-Neduchin says of Novi Sad. "It's an excellent place for study and knowing people in our region, which is very tolerant."