Teens Taste Democracy What They Are Seeing, They Hope, Is Their Young Republic's Future.

Posted: April 15, 1997

BERWYN — The ambassadors have chowed at Pizzeria Uno, danced the macarena, shot hoops and indulged in the most common U.S. teenage pastime: shopping at the mall.

But the 14 students from Moldova, the smallest republic of the former Soviet Union, are not spending two weeks here just to hang out at King of Prussia. As goodwill ambassadors, they have a mission, said their teacher, Constantine Erhan.

``They're the future of our republic,'' he said. ``We're beginning to build a real democracy, and the foundation is the teenagers.''

The group of Moldovan students, their English teacher and the principal of the Ion Creaga Lyceum are part of a larger high school exchange program that has brought 42 students and teachers to Conestoga High School, the Masterman School in Philadelphia, and Wilmington Charter School in Delaware.

The aim of the program, sponsored by Drexel University with the help of a grant from the U.S. Information Agency, is to give Moldovans the chance to explore democracy up close and to send several U.S. students in May to experience life in the tiny country between Romania and Ukraine.

``The program participates with newly independent countries to help in their transformation to democracy,'' said Julie Mostov, professor of history at Drexel and director of the exchange program. ``It is meant to build bridges between future leaders. When people are young, it's time to open their horizons.''

As they shadowed mentor students at Conestoga last week, the Moldovan students received an eye full.

``It's a very, very big school,'' said Ruslan Iurie Romanciuc, 16.

A fellow student, Camelia Arcadie Cracun, also 16, explained the difference between the average U.S. high school and her lyceum in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau.

``Our school isn't divided the same. One building is for three kinds of schools,'' she said, referring to the lyceum's combination of elementary, middle and high schools under one roof. ``We like the system of education here, because students can choose their subjects.''

Cracun was also impressed by an American trait that would make the Founding Fathers proud.

``The freedom and self-expression is so widespread here,'' she said. ``There is abuse of power here - the same as all countries - but here, freedom is respected.''

When not in class or sightseeing, the students stay with local families. Sid Pomper of Berwyn, who hosted Cracun and fellow student Natalia Volontir, said it had been a great experience.

``I really believe these bridges between countries are important,'' he said.

Erhan said that as the students socialized and learned about U.S. democracy, he and Ion Creanga principal Valentin Guzgan were trying to gather information that might aid in developing democracy in their country.

``As soon as we go back to Moldova, I will contact the head principals in other districts,'' Guzgan said in Moldovan as Erhan translated. ``We will inform and spread what we learn to everyone. Many schools didn't have the chance to come here.''

He added in English, ``We make a video and take pictures to convince our officials to change.''

Both Erhan and Guzgan said there was no money at their school for computer systems or for textbooks in Moldovan instead of Russian.

``It is interesting that the government here gives money for equipment for the child's studies,'' Erhan said. ``It helps them to achieve their goals, just to be a well-educated person.''

The Moldovans have already toured Philadelphia landmarks, met city officials and explored Longwood Gardens.

This week, they will visit Washington after attending two days of diversity training at Drexel.

Romanciuc said he was grateful for the trips, the pizza and the warm welcome. And he knew exactly whom to thank.

``Thanks to the American taxpayers, yeah?''

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