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Russians at Home in Mississippi College

March 29, 2003

LORMAN, Miss. (AP) _ Ivan Dylko knew the kind of education he wanted.

He also knew he probably wouldn’t be able to get it studying journalism in his native Russia, a country still trying to shake a history of communism.

So, in the fall of 2001, Dylko enrolled in a U.S. university he had heard about from other Russians: Alcorn State, a predominantly black campus of 3,150 students secluded in the southwest Mississippi countryside.

With its count of Russian students nearing 30 _ all from Dylko’s hometown of Vornonezh _ and dozens of students from other countries, Alcorn State is drawing attention for its growing international student body in the midst of a black majority.

In all, 16 countries including Turkey, Algeria, Ghana and Columbia are represented.

``If we were in some predominantly white school, we would still have this opportunity, but I don’t think it would be as profound as we have here,″ Dylko said.

The university, one of Mississippi’s three traditionally black public colleges, has been working to increase diversity, going from less than five percent non-black enrollment in 1998 to 8.9 percent currently.

This fall, enrollment is expected to reach a record 10 percent of non-black students, said college president Clinton Bristow Jr. The school’s faculty has diversified even faster. In the fall, the 214-member faculty was 20.1 percent white and 15.4 percent ``other.″

``The 21st century reality is that you want your students to be exposed to the best thinking from around the world,″ Bristow said. ``You also want your students to have faculty members from different backgrounds.″

The school has financial incentives as well. Last year, a federal judge approved a $503 million settlement in a long-running college desegregation case to be spread over 17 years to the traditionally black universities: Alcorn, Mississippi Valley State and Jackson State. To get the money, the schools must maintain at least 10 percent non-black enrollment for three consecutive years.

Bristow said Alcorn’s diversity efforts began even before then.

Much of the ``diversity movement″ was led Alcorn tennis coach Tony Dodgen, who recruited the school’s first Russian student, Mikhail Frolov, with a full tennis scholarship in 1998.

From 1997, Dodgen’s first year as coach, to now, his tennis teams went from no international students to two Australians and players from South Africa, the Czech Republic, Uganda and Mexico. Jonas Kazemekaitis of Lithuania is joining the men’s team this fall.

``I didn’t recruit anybody with the sole intent of diversifying the entire Alcorn State University campus, but it has, I think, helped to provide a good diversity pattern for this school,″ Dodgen said.

The recruiting has since spread to other departments, Bristow said. Most foreign students at Alcorn receive at least a partial diversity scholarship.

Mila Karlina, 19, got all her tuition and fees paid by combining a partial diversity scholarship and a partial tennis scholarship. Her friend Elena Sycheva, 18, works as a research assistant on campus to help pay school costs.

``We accept them with open arms,″ said Tiffany Lloyd, 21, a psychology major who was recently voted Miss Alcorn State University and featured in Ebony magazine.

Russian Asya Besova, 17, said she wonders what the fuss is all about.

``We don’t have this problem in Russia,″ she said of America’s rift between blacks and whites. ``In Russia, we have a lot of African students in our university.″

According to the Institute of International Education, international student enrollment in the United States has risen 6.4 percent for two consecutive school years.

The war with Iraq might lower that in the future, said Victor Johnson, associate executive director for public policy with the National Association for Foreign Student Affairs. Getting into the country has already become harder since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said.

But Dylko, like other foreign students, said the war hasn’t changed his feelings about being here. He said he hasn’t experienced any hostility for being from Russia, which isn’t supporting the United States in Iraq.

The foreign students are accepted and sometimes seen as a welcome curiosity, said Eugenia Merculova, 22, an Alcorn graduate from Russia who works at the university.

``They always ask questions and they say, ’you’re probably sick of us asking all these questions. But we’re not sick of it,″ Merculova said. ``It’s very nice to know that people are interested.″


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