KLAIPĖDA, Lithuania (Mennonite Mission Network) – She could be the girl next door.
She wears her dark blonde hair hooked behind her ears to reveal big brown eyes set in a heart-shaped face. Her attire consists of the standard college uniform of jeans and a sweatshirt.
But as she speaks of life in the “very Soviet-looking” capital city of Minsk, Belarus, it very quickly becomes obvious that the reality Suzanna Krivulskaya grew up with is worlds away from any doorstep most North Americans would recognize.
For one thing, there’s the simple fact that she’s a college student at all – a fact she never takes for granted. It is a small miracle she owes to the encouragement of Steve Dintaman, head of the theology department at Lithuania Christian College in Klaipėda, where she is currently a second-year student. Five Mennonite Mission Network representatives, including Dintaman and his wife, Betsy, currently provide a strong presence at this liberal-arts college.
“In Belarus, if you don’t get into university, everybody gives up on you,” Krivulskaya says matter-of-factly.
She first heard about LCC when, as a newly baptized high-school student, she was interested in attending a Christian college. However, knowing it would be costly to attend LCC, she decided it was an impossible dream and instead focused her energies on gaining acceptance at a local university in Minsk.
When she didn’t get accepted there, either, she figured her hopes were over. But a short time later, some personnel who worked in admissions at LCC visited Minsk.
And Suzanna Krivulskaya decided she wasn’t ready to give up on herself.
She wrote to Dintaman and told him how much she wanted to attend college there. He wrote back and strongly encouraged her to keep trying to find a way. Seek financial aid through scholarships that were available, he advised her.
She did – and she was admitted and received a full scholarship.
“The first two months I was here, I couldn’t stop talking,” she says. “The freedom – the ability to think critically and to say what we think – is something we are not given back home.”
One of the goals of LCC is to develop critical-thinking skills that shape students to become agents for change in their respective cultures, according to Dintaman, who has served at the college since September 2002.
“They take a more active approach to problem-solving; they show more initiative,” Dintaman said. “We encourage students to be actively engaged in learning. Success in business does not depend on how well you remember your lecture notes.”
Another important focus at the college is academic integrity, crucial in former Soviet-bloc countries where bribery, plagiarism and other forms of cheating are very common in higher education. The hope is that students will take this heightened sense of integrity out with them into the larger society.
Krivulskaya will need those skills when she returns to Belarus, which – unlike most of her peers from that country – she plans to do upon graduation.
It would be far easier to give up on Belarus, with its overwhelming problems, as so many of her compatriots have done. Instead she hopes to go back to do mission work there. She’ll have her work cut out for her.
In flawless English, and with a detailed accuracy clearly not gleaned from her own country’s heavily censored newspapers, Krivulskaya describes the political and economic upheaval in her troubled homeland. She is only 19 years old, but as she speaks of daily life in Belarus, a mood of cynicism tinges the interview.
A key controversial figure in Belarus is its president, Alexander Lukashenko, who has been referred to by many other foreign leaders and in the foreign press as “Europe’s last dictator.” Journalists who have criticized the president have been known to “disappear,” Krivulskaya says – a statement that is easily confirmed from several European news sources.
The corruption that begins with top leadership trickles down to all levels of Belarussian society.
“I hated high school,” Krivulskaya says. “Everything is so hypocritical. It’s still very much influenced by the Soviet system.” She explains that her teachers never stood up for what they believed. Instead, they pretended to support whatever ideologies were politically expedient. Otherwise, their salaries might be reduced.
Hampered by high inflation, persistent trade deficits, and ongoing conflicts with Russia, and with 27 percent of the population living below the poverty line, Belarus’ economy fares hardly better than its political situation. Although two percent of its people are registered as unemployed, a very large number of workers are underemployed, according to The CIA World Fact book.
Why would Krivulskaya want to go back, when most of her peers who’ve managed to get out hope never to return? In an instant all traces of cynicism vanish. Her eyes soften as she speaks of the faith in Jesus that came to her in high school through mission workers. It was a faith that gave her hope when everything looked bleak.
“I feel called back,” Krivulskaya says. “I don’t love the things that are happening in my country. I don’t love the government. But I see the need. They’re so needy for spiritual freedom.
“I think it’s possible that things can get better, and I’m willing to invest in that,” she says. “People in Belarus are so open to spiritual things.”
Krivulskaya is grateful she’s been able to attend the college of her choice to help her develop her faith for the task that lies ahead.
“LCC is special because of people like Steve [Dintaman] who come here and are so willing to give,” she said. “It’s not just their knowledge. It’s the passion for their faith.”
She will need to keep that passion alive in her own heart when she returns to Belarus. Bringing faith to her troubled homeland will require more patience and energy than most people would be willing to devote to the task.
But just as she once refused to give up on herself, Suzanna Krivulskaya is not ready to give up on Belarus, either.
Founded in 1991 as an international Christian school with English as the language of instruction, LCC was designed with a vision to develop a new generation of leaders for Lithuania and other Eastern European countries who can think critically, promote democratic ideals, develop a market economy, and rebuild civil society in a Christian context. Since 1995, Mennonite Mission Network personnel have served with LCC in a variety of roles, ranging from teaching to administration to support services.