Inside the fortress, CDE students find a family

At first glance, the Center for Development Economics (CDE) looks more like a medieval castle secluded at the edge of campus than a graduate academic building. However, the residents of the building are not exactly royalty. Instead, the 24 students in the CDE program come from various developing countries where luxurious castles and displays of grand affluence are hardly common sights.

Before Baryalai Parsa arrived in Williamstown, he worked for the Ministry of Finance in Afghanistan, overseeing infrastructure projects on a local level. In the aftermath of the U.S. war in Afghanistan in 2001, Parsa’s country has faced tremendous problems with reestablishing security and stability for its citizens. However, Parsa hopes that his education through the CDE program will provide him the opportunities to help shape a brighter future for his recovering homeland.

“When I go back, I want to work in a higher place that covers all sectors,” Parsa said. “In a developing country, infrastructure is not enough, we will need to work on education and security to create a balanced country . . . I want to help develop a national strategy for long term plans for Afghanistan.”

Most students at the CDE, like Parsa, also work in their respective countries’ Ministry of Finance or Central Banks. For them, their experience at the graduate masters program is a unique opportunity to learn about the specific problems facing their respective countries.

“The great thing about the CDE is that the courses are relevant to our countries because it focuses on developing countries,” Gerawork Getachew Bizuneh from Ethiopia said. “Back home, the schools would teach economics, but with industrial countries’ textbooks. Here, it actually applies to us.”

Due to the specificity of the program at the CDE, the masters program lasts only one year as opposed to the usual two-year standard. As a result, the students are constantly swamped with readings and homework for their classes. “It’s so intense and busy here,” Bizuneh said of her coursework. “It’s too much! One year is not enough.”

Although the students are grateful for the opportunity to study in the exceptional CDE program, many would prefer to have more spare time to relax and enjoy their distinctive new surroundings. “It’s a tough program and I wish we had more free time,” Parsa said. “I don’t feel that I really know the real environment of Williams College or U.S. colleges. [The program] may not be as much fun, but we do a program that usually takes two years. There has to be a trade off.”

Along with an extremely rigorous curriculum, the CDE participants also have to deal with being separated from their friends and family for the entire year. Due to the costs of international travel and the short breaks, most cannot return home during the holidays. From the time they arrive in Williamstown until the completion of the program, many students never leave their new home. “Some people miss home so much,” Altynai Aidarova of the Kyrgyz Republic said. “There are some guys here who have children and families at home. Everyone misses their own food and friends and family.”

For Endera Rathnaseela of Sri Lanka, every day in the CDE program is another day that he does not get to see his daughter grow up. “I have a daughter who is six years old right now. It is hard, but I speak to her through Skype,” he said. “I get to see her, so that is a great opportunity.”

Athikaset Thongves knows how Rathnaseela feels. Although he does not have children back home in Thailand, his only family member, his mother, is never far from his thoughts. “At home it is only me and my mother. I call her everyday because we are each other’s family. Her health is not good and she has to go to the hospital everyday. I use the telephone, but I still miss home.”

The students may be thousands of miles away from their friends and family, but they have created their own family within the CDE program. Every weekday the scholars eat breakfast and lunch together in their own dining room: laughing, chatting and joking amongst each other. They each come from diverse walks of life, but in the intimacy of the CDE house their differences are mitigated.

“We’re like a family – we all live and eat together everyday,” Aidarova said. “When we have free time we drink tea, watch movies, go shopping and play ping-pong – the usual stuff.”

Thongves agrees. He and his friend, Rathnaseela, often cook together in the basement kitchen of the CDE house. The two fridges lining the kitchen walls are crammed with individually labeled bags and boxes of food, and the two often scurry around the room washing, peeling and cutting vegetables. The scent of garlic and hot chili regularly permeates the room as Thongves and Rathnaseela complete their cooking.

“We mostly cook together for dinner,” Thongves said excited. “Otherwise we watch movies and TV shows in our spare time. I like Monk, Charmed, Law and Order, CSI. Oh! And NBA! We watch it everyday.”

After spending so much time together, many residents find it difficult to imagine leaving the CDE program and being without each other.

“After coming to Williams, I have gained the power to do something for my country,” Parsa said. “I will be able to affect a big sector of the population and do something for all people in Afghanistan. That is a great thing.”

In June, the students may not return home to castles like the CDE building that has become their home in the past six months, but the knowledge they have gained from the program will aid them in improving their countries. While their stay in Williamstown may not be as relaxing as they had anticipated, the students realize that they will have a critical impact on their homelands’ economy because of the program. Putting these issues in perspective, perhaps the trade-off does not seem so unfortunate after all.

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