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Katarina Jurikova, left, and Maaike Winter

Katarina Jurikova, left, and Maaike Winter, both high school students from Bratislava, Slovakia, visit in Jurikova’s dorm room at Montana State University Billings. The two are attending the university through a unique program that links Billings to Bratislava.

Katarina Jurikova and Maaike Winter are delighted to see squirrels and rabbits near their dorm at Montana State University Billings.

But a deer in one of the nearby streets astounded them.

Their home country of Slovakia has wildlife, too, but not so close to residential neighborhoods.

Jurikova, 20, and Winter, 17, will start classes with other MSU Billings students on Wednesday.

The young women are in Montana because of a unique connection between their home in Bratislava, Slovakia, and Billings.

Slovakia was part of Czechoslovakia until after communism in the Middle European country fell. In 1993, the Czechs and Slovaks agreed to peacefully separate into two countries.

Slovakia has about 5.5 million people and its capital, Bratislava, is a city of about a half-million residents.

Based on Billings

In 1994, Daniel Laco, a Slovak, came to Billings to be an intern at MasterLube. Laco liked MasterLube’s business model so much that he started lube shops in Bratislava based on the Billings business.

During MasterLube owner Bill Simmons’ visits to Laco in Bratislava, Simmons learned about the C.S. Lewis High School, a Christian-based bilingual school.

Structured like a German gymnasium, C.S. Lewis is a five-year high school, in which many classes are taught in English.

When one C.S. Lewis student came to Billings, Simmons took him to see MSU Billings. During a visit with Kirk Lacy, then the director of the university’s international program, an idea was hatched to bring students from the Slovakian school to Billings to study.

Then-chancellor Ron Sexton, his successor, Rolf Groseth, and other administrators were enthusiastic about the plan, Simmons said.

Earlier this year, Jurikova and Winter were chosen to be the first students in the program.

Good choice

Simmons was pleased with the choice, saying that the young women are mature, articulate, idealistic and courageous to make the journey so far from home.

Simmons guaranteed that the young women’s bills would be paid as part of the process of the students applying for visas.

The students pay for their housing, but are not charged for MSU Billings tuition because they are part of an exchange program that may include MSU Billings education students going to C.S. Lewis High School to student teach in the future, said Tom Rust, interim director of the MSU Billings international program.

The university, which has done a good job recruiting foreign students to Billings, now wants to increase the number of Montana students going overseas.

This fall, nearly 120 international students will study at the university. That total is down a little from last year, probably because MSU Billings raised the level of English proficiency for foreign students, Rust said.

While in Billings, Jurikova and Winter will take general-education courses that will be accepted by a group of universities in the U.S.

The classes also will help prepare them to take final exams when they return to their school in Bratislava at the end of this year. When they resume classes in Bratislava in the spring semester, they also will take more MSU Billings classes online.

The young women arrived in Billings to start orientation with other international students last week.

The students received a surprise when about a dozen of them decided to have a nice dinner downtown one night.

While they were eating at Jake’s, a stranger walked up and said that he was paying for their meal. Only known to them as “Doug,” the man said that he had been an exchange student in Germany years ago. When he got lost in Germany one time, the Germans treated him so well that he wanted to return the favor.