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Semester in Budapest broadens cultural and academic horizons

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN.--Living in a foreign country might be a bit intimidating, says Margaret Penner--but at least she’ll be able to speak the math. Penner, a junior physics and mathematics major from West Chester who attends Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., is spending the spring semester in Budapest, Hungary, in a program called Budapest Semesters in Mathematics. The last Bethel student to do this was Penner’s second cousin, Lisa Thimm, who graduated in 2001.

In fact, Penner heard about Budapest Semesters in Mathematics from Thimm when Penner was still in high school. "Lisa was overwhelmingly positive about it," Penner says. "I think that’s what really hooked me."

In addition, Bethel associate professor of computer science David Janzen (currently on sabbatical) went to Budapest when he was a student at Tabor College, as did Nathan Lemons, the son of Penner’s advisor, Bethel professor of physics Don Lemons.

That was the main reason Lemons has few qualms about sending one of his physics advisees off for a semester’s immersion in math.

"It’s a great intellectual experience," says Lemons. "If there was an equivalent for physics majors, I’d recommend it."

Penner has actually spent time in other countries before. When she was in 7th and 8th grade, she lived in Germany with her family.

"I remember my first couple of weeks in school in Germany," she says. "In history class, I couldn’t understand anything, but once I figured out I was in math class, then I knew what was going on. It was comforting to know, ‘At least I can speak the math.’"

In fact, Budapest Semesters in Mathematics is specifically targeted to North American undergraduates, who study--in English--under eminent Hungarian scholars from the faculty of Eotvos University and the Mathematical Institute for the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. These two institutions are known for having educated more than half of Hungary’s highly acclaimed mathematicians.

The average person probably doesn’t known that Hungary is known for producing more world-renowned mathematicians per capita than any other country.

"Hungary has a long tradition of excellence in mathematics education," says Bethel professor of mathematics Richard Rempel. "but because of the language barrier, students weren’t able to take advantage of the skill and dedication of the mathematics faculties of Hungarian universities until this program came along." It began in the spring semester of 1985.

For Penner, a semester in Budapest means she’ll be able to "take more classes focused in math than what Bethel as a liberal arts college can offer."

She also expects it will "broaden my horizons, get me out of my comfort zone and help me become more of a global citizen. I knew already when I came to Bethel that I wanted to study abroad."

Says Rempel, "You have to be confident and independent to be able to spend a semester in Budapest. Margaret will get the chance to immerse herself in--and spend most of her time for a semester thinking about--math, in a country the prizes it."

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