A chance to study again, after decades of failures: The Socrates Project at CEU

The original Hungarian article by Eszter Neuberger profiles participants of the 2019 Socrates Project pilot course in Budapest, at Central European University. Originally published on Abcúg.hu, it is translated and published, with the photographs of András Hajdu D., in English with permission.

For some, it was bringing up an autistic child; for others, a lack of self-confidence, or having to provide for their families – they were all denied the opportunity to pursue education beyond high school. Some acquiesced, and have been relentlessly taking extracurricular courses to educate themselves, while others, over 40, are trying to get into their desired university program for the fifth time, after four rejections. The Socrates Project at Central European University is designed for people just like them: their two-month course covering an introduction to social sciences and humanities caters to adults who have not been able to attend college due to various obstacles. We spoke to six participants of the program about why they had had to give up hope to continue their studies, and what motivates them now to enter the gates of CEU. 

“Do you think there is a need for private entrepreneurs in railway transit?” 

“I think so, since competition can be beneficial to the quality of service, and can push ticket prices down,” responds one of the students. 

“OK, but capital will settle where there’s more demand of good financial standing. So Western Hungary will be teeming with competing private companies, and in the East the railway system will be left to continue to decay,” torpedoes the argument of her fellow student another participant. 

We are on the campus of Central European University, but the seminar is not at the departments of Economics, Political Science or Sociology – and the ongoing debate is not between graduate students. As we enter the room in the impressive Nádor street campus on this Wednesday afternoon in late June, the chairs are occupied by rag trade workers, retail procurement agents, call center and cinema operators, or people currently unemployed for various reasons. 

They are all participants of the Socrates Project, a new initiative offering them a chance at CEU to make up for some of what they had missed out on previously – their coveted but never finished, or perhaps never even started college education. 

The Socrates Project has been designed, based on a US example, for people who would have liked to, but for some reason could not get a university education. A total of forty people had the opportunity to attend a Hungarian or English-language course running parallel for two months, organized under the theme of “Freedom and Society” and covering topics in social sciences and the humanities. Flóra László, director of CEU’s Community Engagement Office and coordinator of the course told Abcúg that they are planning to expand the courses after the pilot. 

Meet six of the participants, who talked to us after the closing ceremony about why they had had to give up their dreams of a college education, and what motivated them to enter the university gates two months ago. 

She could not finish college, but her thirst for knowledge is insatiable 

Bernadett, participant of 2019 Budapest pilot. Photo by András D. Hajdu

Bernadett Sándor, 35, works as a procurement agent at a retail company. Her highest degree is her high school diploma – after passing the school-leaving exams, she was admitted to college to study commerce, but had no chance to finish the program. After her first year, her mother retired, and thus could no longer provide for herself, let alone help her daughter. Bernadett now had to cover expenses such as her mother’s housing and medications; she had to quit college to start working. She lives with her mother to this day. “We’re not destitute, but we barely scrape by,” she explains. 

Bernadett never stopped studying even after quitting college. Whenever she has a chance, she frequents libraries and talks on academic or civic topics. She devotes most of her free time to self-education. This is why she signed up for the course offered by the Socrates Project – she is craving “constructive debate”. 

“My family life became a two-front war, having been drawn into the rampant political feud waging in the country. I need validation that I’m not the one to blame – I try to take in several opposing points of view, while others often have a blinkered, square attitude.” 

Hampered by a lack of confidence and success 

Ágnes, participant of 2019 Budapest pilot. Photo by András Hajdu D.

Unlike Bernadett, fifty-year-old Ágnes Tóth never attended college, although not for financial or social reasons. Ágnes told Abcúg that she was beset by a constant lack of confidence and success in school. She puts this down to having had learning difficulties – she was always slower to learn things than her peers. But back then, nobody seemed to pay attention to this, something Ágnes realized now that she is raising her fifteen-year-old son alone, as he has similar problems in school. 

“I tried applying to university twice, but never ended up actually starting it – even the school-leaving exam was frightening,” she says. In the sphere of work, she is successful: she has been working as a recruiter for twenty years, scouting for talent for multinationals, and persistently training herself in her field. She feels that at the course at CEU, she got what she had always been missing from education: 

“Here they supported me, commended me whenever I spoke up in class. I also told my professors that I have never been to such an environment where a teacher treats me as a partner, and supports me to this degree.” 

Forced to pick which one of them can finish their degree 

István, participant of 2019 Budapest pilot. Photo by András D. Hajdu

István Zoltán Kiss is 62, and retired due to disability. A family member recommended that he should apply to the Socrates Project as they thought it was cut out for István. No matter how much he would have wanted to, he couldn’t earn a degree: when he first tried to get into university to study law, he ended up missing the mark by a few points. He doesn’t see this as a failure: back in the times of the communist party state, getting into an important major such as law was not decided based on simply knowledge. 

Instead of going to university, he learned how to run cinemas, and by the early 2000’s, he would manage several in Budapest. When the shopping malls sprang up with the new multiplexes, the sun seemed to set on small cinemas, and István began to look for new ways to remain in the cultural field. He began a cultural management program at university as he thought he would be able to combine this with the experience under his belt and find a job in a related field. 

As he and his wife already had two children, and it became clear quickly that only one of them could continue their studies (she majored in chemistry), they had to pick who would go on to complete their degree. “Comparing our fields, it was not a question who would be the one,” explains István, who proceeded to try his hand at “everything”, including a call center, a bank, “and a thousand more places”. 

As his health deteriorated, he can no longer work. He is set to reach retirement age in a few years – till then, he is on disability pension and subsidies, and his sons also help him. His hapless situation comes with a silver lining: he has more time than ever to read and learn. 

“I won’t be bored in the next period, the course gave me plenty of vectors that I’d like to keep following, to continue learning along the lines set out by the readings required for each class. I used to think I was well-informed, for instance, I thought I knew what liberalism is. Well, no – I want to reorganize my knowledge in a systematic way,” he said when asked what the last two months meant to him. 

In her forties, she reached the point of “So this is my turn now!” 

Nikolett, participant of 2019 Budapest pilot. Photo by András D. Hajdu

Nikolett Szivcsovics was always a good student. In elementary school, she dreamed of attending one of the best high schools in the country – the teacher training high school of ELTE in Budapest, named after the poet Miklós Radnóti. She was intrigued by natural sciences and planned to become a researcher as an adult, which is why she applied for the specialization of Biology, Chemistry and English. 

“They wouldn’t let me take the English exam, I had to take the Russian one, and I happened to mix up a weak conjugation, to miss the mark by a single point” – she remembers, adding that she experienced this as an enormous failure. This might be why she ended up venturing into “a diametrically opposite direction”.  

“Out of defiance, I started vocational school and studied commerce there for six years. I wasn’t interested at all, so obviously I didn’t work in the field for a single moment. I also completed an adult education course in business planning. I met my husband, decided to have children – I had a lot of complications, we struggled for seven years to have a child, and I had several health issues in the meantime. All in all, in my twenties I completely missed the opportunity to study at a university,” Nikolett, now the mother of three, explains. 

The thought of continuing her studies moved light years ahead when his oldest was diagnosed with autism. Nikolett wanted to take an active part in the development of her son, so she left her job as call center manager after her boss refused to accommodate more flexible conditions such as working from home. 

She first had the opportunity to cater to her own ambitions after the children started kindergarten and daycare. By then, she had a clear vision of what she aspired to do: she decided to train as a special needs teacher to build on her experience raising an autistic son, so that she would be able to help him herself, as well as develop other children like him. He came to the course at CEU to get a taste of university life. 

When we spoke, Nikolett already had the acceptance letter from the University of Szeged in her bag – she will study special education in a correspondence course starting September. 

“I tried to get into ELTE in Budapest three times, but the points required were too high. I finished high school in 1994, still in the old system, so I don’t get the extra points that the new system offers to recent graduates. So this year I decided to let go of the full-time Budapest programs and apply to other places. I’m immensely happy that I got in.” 

It’s not normal to evict those whose wages don’t cover the rent 

Krisztina, participant of 2019 Budapest pilot. Photo by András D. Hajdu

This is not the first time that Krisztina Dobos has learned about how society works. As an active member of The School of Public Life, an NGO focusing on civic education and the empowerment of oppressed groups, she has participated in numerous discussions on social inequality and individual freedom. 

She applied hoping for more conversations along these lines, and also because several of her activist friends study or work at CEU. After her high school-leaving exams, Krisztina completed training in textile manufacturing. Like Ágnes, she didn’t have the self-confidence to go on to college. “I wouldn’t believe I could make it, so I didn’t try.” 

Krisztina is clearly very conscious of her social status – she has a strong sense of class, if you like, and she says it’s a problem that this is vanishing among the wage-earning masses. Thus, she has a special relationship with social sciences. 

“They somehow confirm that what I began to think of the world from an early age is not stupid – that I’m right to think that there are issues with capitalism. Somehow it’s not right that people should get evicted, their water turned off, if they are not able to pay. OK, but let’s look below the surface to see why they couldn’t pay. This is when they say things like ’You should economize, save to take care of yourself’, when in today’s Hungary, many run out of money at the end of each month. How could they save? They’re not wasting money, it’s simply that they get so little in exchange for their work. These things are not right.” 

Her life is spent in fear of a downward spiral, but thinking liberates her 

Mária, participant of 2019 Budapest pilot. Photo by András D. Hajdu

The days of Mária Magdolna Kovács, in her early sixties, are spent in dread of eviction. Mária’s Budapest apartment was auctioned off when she was unable to pay the loan instalments. Being unemployed and approaching retirement age, her chances of finding a place to rent in Budapest are scarce. The buyer of the auctioned apartment wanted Mária out even before the process was officially finished, and simply took off the front door, and later any other doors Mária replaced it with. 

This was when Mária turned to The City Is For All for help, who crowdfunded the money needed to rebuild the door. Since then, Mária can leave home without having to go in terror of being robbed. She still doesn’t know where she’ll move after the eviction. 

Originally trained as a movie editor who worked on several films in the 90’s, Mária found the Socrates Project through The City Is For All. She applied to find out about how others think about freedom and other social issues. “I live in an isolated environment largely deprived of stimuli – I mostly know my own panels of thinking, and I’ve even grown somewhat bored of them,” she wrote in a note she read at the graduation ceremony. She was pleased that the course was made up of discussion seminars, not lectures.  

“I had a chance to get to know the views of my fellow students, not just the professors. They share a proclivity for equality, as well as solidarity towards CEU, a desire to study, a sense of responsibility and a willingness to develop.” Mária was captivated by the works of Hannah Arendt, the philosopher who wrote about the relationship between individual and political freedom, among others. 

“I was deeply touched by the discussion on homelessness and the lack of protection, since for me this is part of my life experience. I could add many things to the list, such as fear, a deterioration of relationships, social disdain and more. Having to live through “I don’t have anything, and yet I exist”. I started reading the book – a light, readable style, and I notice that I slow down and keep going back to the beginning. I want to fully understand each sentence. It’s as if she laid out what I went through instead of me. I felt the truth of her words in my guts.” 

“She also wrote about inner freedom. A long time ago, I chose this principle of freedom, I held that all I have control over is myself, and I lived accordingly. I forgot this since but it had built into my personality. I’m grateful the opportunity to remember my old self. This is what led me towards freedom. This was the journey I went through with this course – and maybe one day I’ll also reach society.”