One of the top-ranking Lithuanian higher education institutions, Kaunas Medical University has been experiencing a surge of interest from foreign students.
"Our university is favored by academic people from different parts of the world," said Rimvydas Miliauskas, dean of the International Relations and Study Center at Kaunas Medical University.
Students from 20 countries are enrolled at the university this year. Around 40 percent - come from Lebanon, followed by Israel, Pakistan and Jordan.
In addition, there are students from neighboring countries – Poland, Russia and Estonia – while others arrive from such distant places as Australia, the U.S.A., Venezuela, Hong Kong and India.
"We accept students from all countries that have diplomatic ties with Lithuania," said Miliauskas.
Admission of foreign students to the university began in 1990. At the time, the university had only 22 international students, all of whom came from Lebanon. Gradually the number of foreign enrollments steadily grew, so that now the university boasts 217 foreign students, of which merely 22 percent are female.
The male-female ratio at the medical school provides an interesting contrast to the Lithuanian student body, which is dominated by women.
Not surprisingly, the broad cultural diversity raises many challenges for the university, according to Miliauskas. "I remember a Pakistani father who, while debating whether to let his daughter study in Lithuania, was anxious to know if women here travel on separate buses."
Mor Ben Barak, a fourth-year medical student from Israel, had wanted to enter the medical university at home, but the competition was too tough.
"Medicine is my life passion, so I had no intention to give up. I chose Lithuania over other countries, because it's a lot cheaper to study here."
Indeed, price is one of the main factors for foreign students. Annual tuition at Kaunas Medical University's ranges from $2,800 to $4,200.
"You have to pay twice as much in Hungary and about five times more in the U.S.A.," said Ben Barak, who returns to Israel every summer to do odd jobs in order to cover the cost of his studies.
International students are admitted to the faculties of medicine, pharmacy and dentistry - the most popular being medicine. Studies last 5 - 6 years, depending on the field of specialization.
During the first two years foreign students are instructed in English, while Lithuanian is taught as an individual subject.
"The language barrier was one of the most difficult challenges," said Ben Barak in broken Lithuanian. "Language is a must not only for lectures or daily needs, like shopping, but it also helps you identify with the community."
In the first year all foreign students are provided with hostel accommodation. Later many find housing in the city.
"Over here an apartment rent is considerably lower than in Israel," said Ben Barak.
Despite affordable tuition, Kaunas Medical University also has an excellent reputation. "The Lebanese Ministry of Education urges local students to pursue medical studies in Lithuania. That fact alone speaks volumes," said Dr. Badri El-Aawar, who earned his doctor's degree at Kaunas Medical University a year ago.
"My two brothers also graduated from this university. They went back to Lebanon, and I stayed on," said El-Aawar, currently working as an obstetrician-gynecologist at Kaunas Medical University clinics.
On completing their study program in Lithuania, foreign students have to pass an examination in their home country to get a doctor's license. "The exam is pretty hard, but Kaunas Medical University graduates usually do very well. Many of them were offered jobs in prestigious hospitals in Lebanon," said El-Aawar.
According to Miliauskas, Kaunas Medical University has around 600 instructors and research workers, including 74 professors and 278 associate professors.
"Our staff is highly competent, most of the teachers have received training abroad," said Miliauskas.
"High academic standards place equally high requirements on the students, so naturally some drop out of university."
A few other factors also come into play. Some students lack finances or find life in a country with different customs, climate and food too demanding. Others persist and make sure the hard work and money they have invested in their education pay off in their careers.
"I've never felt like an outcast in Lithuania. During the bloody events of Jan. 13, 1991, my Lithuanian friends and I went to the Kaunas TV station to defend it against the Soviet troops," said El-Aawar, who is presently seeking Lithuanian citizenship.
"Here I feel at home."