Eight years ago, after being forcibly shut down by the Belarusian government, it seemed unlikely that the European Humanities University (EHU) in Minsk, Belarus could continue. But instead of closing, the country’s only private university went into “exile,” relocating to Vilnius, Lithuania. Now celebrating its twentieth year, EHU is an academic environment where young Belarusians excel because of the exceptional education and tremendous freedoms they enjoy.

“In state-run educational institutions, they don’t appreciate creativity and they want you to be a robot,” said Ihar Kiryienka, a third-year undergraduate. “Students in Belarusian universities really lack academic and personal freedom. EHU is building a generation of deep-thinking people.”

EHU’s student body of 1,850 is split between roughly 700 students who attend classes on campus in Vilnius and those who study online. Through a distance learning program, EHU is able to extend its reach to young Belarusians who want to escape the state-run university system but are unable to relocate.

Founded in 1992 by Professor Anatoli Mikhailov, who still serves as the university’s rector, EHU was the first private undergraduate and post-graduate university in Belarus. With the consolidation of Lukashenko’s regime, greater pressures were put on the university starting in 2002 to conform to the government’s standards. After repeated refusals from Rector Mikhailov to resign, EHU’s education license was revoked in August 2004 and its lease terminated.

Following its shuttering, the university received vigorous moral and financial support through its partnership with the Eurasia Foundation and from Western governments and international academic institutions. In 2005, EHU reopened its doors in neighboring Lithuania and has continued to attract young Belarusians, who are drawn to a university setting where they can voice their own opinions and ideas without having to worry that their professors may report their comments in class to the intelligence services.

“In Belarus, you cannot say what you think because you’re afraid that there will be a problem for you, at your job, at the university – you can be expelled from your university,” said Karyna Bobryk, an international and European law masters student. “For me, [EHU] is a place of freedom. At EHU, there’s a plurality of opinions and EHU gives me the opportunity to be active in political and social life without the constant fear of expulsion.”

To date, there are 1,838 EHU alumni, the majority of whom return to Belarus, with high expectations for their country’s future and their own contributions to it. “After EHU, we have a European vision of Belarus,” described Karyna. “We have an education with European standards. And we can help Belarus develop in a European direction.”

Alumni are active in all areas of society, from business to nongovernmental organizations to the arts. After graduating in 2004, Viktor Prokopenya went on to found Viaden Media, Belarus’s fastest growing IT start-up and the first Belarusian company to join the International Chamber of Commerce. Anastasiya Matchanka, who received her bachelor’s in international law in 2009, coordinated a nationwide campaign to raise awareness among young Belarusians of the importance of voting and observing elections. Uladzimir Puhach, another EHU law graduate, is the lead singer of one of the biggest rock bands in Belarus.

“EHU is not the destination – it is the door, and this door opens the way to thousands of others,” remarked Ihar. By providing young Belarusians with the opportunity to cultivate critical thinking skills in an open academic environment and make connections outside of their restrictive homeland, EHU is preparing Belarus for a European future.