Imagine you have intermittent access to the internet and very modest financial resources, and have never traveled to your capital city before, let alone to another country.
Now imagine trying to figure out how to study abroad—an endeavor that can be confusing and expensive even in countries where researching the options is easy. Depending on where you live, you may be able to turn to your local educational advising center (EAC) to help guide you through the process of finding the best opportunity.
EACs offer advice and guidance to any member of the general public interested in information about educational opportunities abroad. “We have a range of people visit us, from high school to doctoral students, professors to professionals, all seeking study abroad opportunities,” says Nino Chinchaladze, the tireless executive director of the Center for International Education (CIE) in Georgia. “And because our services are always free, we also reach those who may not have the means otherwise, such as internally displaced people and students from more rural areas.”
Over the many years that our scholarship programs have been awarding grants to students and faculty, we have relied on the free access to information and local assistance that educational advising centers like the CIE have provided, from Bucharest to Ulaanbaatar. EACs have helped create an equal playing field by promoting scholarship opportunities as widely as possible and at universities within and beyond the capital city limits.
Indeed, one of the most significant activities undertaken by the CIE has been the establishment of centers outside of Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. “Traditionally, there has been a huge gap between the capital and the regions as far as information is concerned, so we started filling this gap by providing people with information and advice about educational opportunities,” says Chinchaladze.
EAC staff members know how to navigate information channels in local contexts to open up access to opportunities for all, especially those in the most under-resourced areas. For those who enter their office virtually or in person, the staff offers general advice on where to apply, how to navigate the process, and—importantly for any international student applying to study abroad—how to take standardized tests.
By offering free access to preparation for English language tests, such as the TOEFL or the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), a center’s staff provides an essential service to the general population. Assistance with such mundane issues can make or break the chances of a promising candidate who’s completing an admissions process and securing funding.
I have travelled to the EACs we support in Georgia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and the Balkans. Their advisors provide invaluable help in arranging our own trips to local universities, setting up information sessions about our scholarships for the general public, and providing space to interview potential candidates. They are also beacons for our returning scholars, offering them a touchstone back to our programs, which were often where their link to Open Society and an extraordinary academic journey began.
The support they offer often goes beyond advising—they host predeparture orientations for students they have assisted, and screen independent movies and hold discussions to encourage constructive public debate and opinion sharing. In this way, EACs provide an essential space for the free exchange of information and ideas when other spaces for civil society continue to shrink.
Although online access is increasing, nothing can beat direct human interaction. “The most important of our activities remains our face-to-face advising. People still want and need to discuss issues with trained advisors who know how to support the student,” says Chinchaladze.