“Baker and Tsaturov have both observed the differences between schools here and schools in America, remarking specifically on remnants of the Soviet Union. “There is a focus on grammar and other textbook exercises, and students do not speak very much in c
“For Mack, the differences came as a surprise. “I remember how stunned I was at the beginning when I first taught a poem to a class of 10th graders,” she tells me. “I was met with perfect silence, as the students stared at me and waited for me to continue lecturing. ”
Flannery Mack, an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, recalls a lesson she taught in Saldus, Latvia, on the subject of Martin Luther King Jr. “The lesson involved a brief discussion of American history in the 1950’s and 60’s that included a lot of pictures, such as police intervention and signs for segregated public spaces, “Mack tells me, noting that she repeated the lecture in her sixth, seventh, tenth, and eleventh grade classrooms. She played a video of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and later asked the students to write about their own dream for the future. She was floored by the thoughtful responses, including a dream from a 10th grade student that “everyone who has had to leave Latvia will come back and be able to live a successful and happy life here.”
Mack is a participant in the largest U.S. exchange program, which operates in 140 countries, and awards approximately 1,900 grants each year. Started in 1946 by Arkansas Senator William J Fulbright, the Fulbright Program aims to “promote international goodwill through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture, and science.” There are two components – English Teaching Assistantships (ETAS) and research and study grants – both of which seek to facilitate cultural exchange between Americans and citizens of other nations. The Student Program is just one of a handful of programs run by Fulbright, including programs that send academics from the Baltic States to teach and study in American universities.
Currently, ten Fulbright Students, including myself, are teaching and studying in the Baltic States. Placements range from Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius to the small town of Lub na, Latvia, where I commute from Madona once a week to teach in the town’s secondary school.
Many of the folks involved with the programme are worth of a separate story, but let me bring up a couple of them who have been a great asset to the local communities and the programme itself.
Rasa Baukuviene, the International Exchange and Academic Affairs Specialist at the U.S. Embassy in Lithuania, notes that “the program has helped to establish a network of Lithuanian and American institutions of higher education that exchange lecturers, scientific researchers and students.” Baukuviene sees the program as fundamentally bilateral, and emphasizes that initializing contacts between the two countries can result in longterm cooperation and partnership. This year, Lithuania is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the program.
Allison Germain, who is “excited by the opportunity to add an experimental component to her dissertation,” has been researching the syntax of Lithuanian and Russian in Vilnius. Germain attends the University of Washington for her graduate studies, and has been able to conduct a large survey of native speakers since beginning her grant. “I like that the Fulbright is not completely focused on research and encourages grantees to get involved in the local community,” Germain adds, noting that she has been able to visit language classes in area schools.
Justine Koontz, of Eldersburg, Maryland, has similarly involved herself in the community in R ga by participating in local choirs. Fascinated by the national sobriquet of “the country that sings,” Koontz chose Latvia in order to delve into the “great wealth of singing that takes place here.” Having never previously studied or lived abroad, the Fulbright has opened her eyes to different social rules and habits, not least of which involve singing. “I’ve not only been learning a great deal about Latvian choral culture, but also a lot about American choral culture, simply because I can now see it from a different perspective that wasn’t available to me before,” Koontz remarks. The biggest difference she has found is that America is heavily focused on collegiate choirs, whereas community, school, and professional choirs in Latvia have a greater influence.
Like Koontz and Germain, Victoria Preston and Auden Lincoln-vogel are carrying out research grants in the Baltics, both based in Tallinn, Estonia. Yet the two Fulbright Students came to Estonia to explore vastly different academic interests: Preston to pursue oceanic science, and Lincoln-vogel to create an animated film.
Preston, of Edgewater, Maryland, is working on developing “low-cost, small, autonomous underwater robots” to aid historians and marine archeologists in reaching places that are inaccessible to human divers. She came to Estonia to gain additional practical experience in her field of ocean science and engineering prior to beginning her PHD program: “The Fulbright grant allowed me to do this with one of the few labs in the world aligned with my field of expertise while also giving me full control over my own work.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Lincoln-vogel is working on an animated film with guidance from Estonian animator Priit Parn. “The lack of public funds for the arts in the U.S. has prevented marginal art forms like animation from developing from something purely commercial into something artistically valuable,” Lincoln-vogel explains. In Estonia, he is able to learn from an animation tradition that fascinates him while working in a country that allocates greater funds to artistic and experimental films.
Jane Susi, who works in the Cultural and Educational Programs department of the U.S. Embassy in Tallinn, explains that the Fulbright program was important to Estonia during the transition to democracy. “In the early 1990’s, as Estonia was regaining its rightful place back in the international community, Fulbright served as a mechanism to establish relationships with U.S. academic community and bring back ideas during a time of tremendous change,” she tells me. As evidenced by the projects being completed by both Preston and Lincoln-vogel, Estonia now offers Fulbright participants many opportunities that are unavailable in the U.S. “Estonia is the source of inspiration and innovation in many modern fields, such as Cyber Security, that U.S. partners want to tap into,” Susi furthers.
While the Fulbright researchers design and implement individualized projects, ETA’S are sent to different communities and tasked with providing English language instruction in schools, universities, and other venues. The ETA experience can vary greatly, and depends on the region, the size of the community, and the institution in which you are placed.
Christina Baker, originally from Texas, is currently an ETA in Narva, Estonia. Baker works at an NGO as well as the American Corner, where she teaches informal English lessons to students of all ages – from kindergarten to adults – and occasionally visits schools to lecture on American culture. For Baker, the Fulbright has given her the chance to apply her theoretical knowledge from university to a real-world context. “My degree is actually in Political Science, and I specialized in Post-soviet Eastern and Northern Europe,” Baker explains. “I always found this region to be interesting, and I really wanted to experience the culture first hand –not just from books.”
In Rezekne, Latvia, Alisa Tsaturov teaches at three secondary schools as well as the Rezekne Academy of Technologies. Tsaturov is from Rockville, Maryland, not far from Washington DC, and
worked at the Foreign Service Institute for two years before applying to teach in Latvia. Tsaturov utilizes games such as Taboo and Pictionary to encourage students to speak freely, move around the classroom, and step outside their comfort zones.
Baker and Tsaturov have both observed the differences between schools here and schools in America, remarking specifically on remnants of the Soviet Union. “There is a focus on grammar and other textbook exercises, and students do not speak very much in class,” Tsaturov explains. Baker sees the classrooms in Narva as characteristically teacher-centric. “That’s not to say American schools are the best at being student-centric classes,” she clarifies, “but it’s still a striking difference from the classrooms I’ve seen here.”
For Mack, the differences came as a surprise. “I remember how stunned I was at the beginning when I first taught a poem to a class of 10th graders,” she tells me. “I was met with perfect silence, as the students stared at me and waited for me to continue lecturing.” Yet Mack is very impressed by the sense of the community and familiarity between individual teachers and their students, and observed that no students pass through secondary school unnoticed.
Discoveries of cultural differences are precisely what the Fulbright aims to facilitate, as they increase mutual understanding between citizens of the Baltic nations and those of the United States. Given today’s volatile political climate, Baukuvien believes that international exchange is more vital now than ever. “Some of democracy’s best tools in the war on terror are education, mutual understanding, cooperation,” she underscores.
As an ETA in Madona, Cesvaine, and Lubana, Latvia, I was able to act as a judge for the regional English language competition, in which students spoke on the topic of “this generation”. I listened intently as high school students eloquently expounded ideas about national identity, the responsibilities of today’s youth, and the future of the Latvian language and traditions. Though I came to Latvia to explore the country where my grandmother grew up, the Fulbright Student Program has given me tremendous insight into Latvia in the 21st century.
While grantees are tasked with certain responsibilities, casual cultural exchanges that take place during a Fulbright year can enhance the understanding of all aspects of life in the Baltic States. In addition to the “oodles” of information Preston has learned about oceanic engineering, she emphasizes that being in Estonia has taught her other invaluable lessons: “There is so much I have learned about human persistence, resilience, and patriotism from the long history of occupation, and relatively recent independence.”
Map of US Fulbright Students in the Baltics
Mara Moettus on September 1, lubana, latvia
Rezekne Academy of Technologies
Flannery Mack and Students in Saldus, latvia
Alisa Tsaturov in Rezekne, latvia
Christina Baker in Narva, Estonia
Students carve pumpkins for Halloween in Saldus, latvia