Department SpotlightWhitworth Student Chronicles Summer Internship at U.S. Embassy in Lithuania
Laura Thaut, '05, a political science and international studies double major, is working as an intern this summer with the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Lithuania. Thaut, a resident of Billings, Mont., spent summer 2003 as a paid intern for the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., working in the Office of Nordic and Baltic Affairs under the Bureau of European Affairs. This summer in Lithuania, Thaut is working in the political and economic division of the U.S. Embassy. Following are excerpts from her journal:
Subject: Laura goes to Vilnius, Lithuania
Laba diena (hello) from Vilnius, Lithuania. I thought I would drop you all a hello and update you on my time thus far. It is hard for me to know where to begin because I feel like I have lots I would love to describe. I have been interning at the embassy for about three weeks now. I have been keeping a journal to record some of my observations. I'm trying to learn as much as I can from the projects I'm working on in the embassy, relationships I'm building with the officers and Lithuanians, and just general observations and feelings about my time here. So I begin...
I was a bit nervous about the flight over, having to make three different connections and without having flown overseas before. I kept asking myself what I thought I was doing traveling by myself to some country practically on the other side of the world. Crazy! And I used to think I'd never go anywhere outside of Montana. I guess that's how passion for studies and love of learning can change a person. It was kind of odd getting on the plane to fly from New York to Prague -- bye bye to the English language. That was an interesting feeling.
I just flew over Prague. It was really beautiful from the air -- red roofs and green rolling hills -- lovely. While sitting in the Prague airport for a couple of hours, I tried to entertain myself by guessing which country the passersby were from. In the meantime, I told myself to pretend I'm European, step confidently, keep my head up, and pretend like I know where I'm going and what I'm doing.
Vilnius. Laba diena! I arrived in Vilnius about 2:30 p.m., was picked up by Christian, one of the foreign-service officers (FSOs), from the embassy (my sponsor -- a younger fellow just out of college who also was an intern before), and we drove to the embassy.
I am staying in an embassy apartment and it is probably the most secure place in the city. One has to get through quite a bit of security -- the guards check your car out, then there are marines on guard 24/7 and gates that they monitor, more guards who check your ID, and I have to know combinations to get through the gates/doors and into the apartment. I have this huge, very nice apartment to myself right now (it formerly housed Soviet officials, I'm told). It has two big rooms, two bathrooms, a laundry room, closet room, kitchen, big dining room/living room etc. Tatyana, the other intern who will be my roommate, should be here around the June 21, so that will be nice.
After a short nap so that I didn't collapse, I went to dinner with Christian and two other embassy folks, Greg and Abby (they are all junior officers on their first tour). The embassy is a couple of blocks up the hill from Vinius' old town. I'm in a perfect location to walk around and tour this beautiful and central part of the city (it is well preserved...cobblestone streets, molded architecture, European-like restaurants and cafes, old cathedrals in the baroque style, different colored buildings).
We went to a traditional Lithuanian restaurant -- low ceilings, paintings on the walls, wooden tables. I told them to order me something that was authentic Lithuanian, so I had mushroom soup (delicious!) and Cepelines (definitely Lithuanian). They are some sort of boiled potatoes with meat in the middle and a special sauce over the top. However they made it, it was so good! I love Lithuanian food already. It is very heavy food (and probably not too healthy), but...oh well. Our conversation was good, too. It is always a bit of a challenge for me not to act shy when meeting new people, but I had enough questions and they are nice and laid back enough that is was fine.
Ah, yes, you may think the evening was over; but no, the night was only beginning. They decided to take me to a pub to meet up with some other friends. We met with a Marine and a couple of Lithuanian girls, along with a girl here who is finishing up her Fulbright. She is researching gender roles in the Soviet and post-Soviet societies. I was able to talk a lot of politics with her, which is always a refreshing thing!
My job for the first week here has been to set up meetings with all of the different department heads and get an idea of their role in the embassy. In my section there are two political officers, one economics officer, our chief of the political/economics section, the ambassador, DCM (deputy chief of mission, 2nd in command), and another woman who does specialized data base type work. These are the main FSOs I work with in addition to five FSNs (Foreign Service Nationals who are Lithuanian) who work with us on political/economic issues.
I spent yesterday evening with the pol/econ chief and her husband (the acting DCM), Nancy and Anthony and their daughter. And I spent the morning and afternoon with one of the pol/econ officers and his wife, Trevor and Carolina. A couple of observations:
First, I think it is very difficult to develop a good community at a post with the combination of long work hours and a life of uprooting every two or three years to go to the next post. This is something I am concerned about when considering the Foreign Service as a future career. I know that I am someone who could easily fall into the workaholic cycle (as my endeavors at school may illustrate -- but I'm getting better!) and I would need to be even more intentional than I already am to not to get caught up in that.
I have asked Trevor, Nancy, and Anthony about this community aspect. They say that this is a difficult part of the foreign-service life. The embassy staff of course develops their own degree of community, but I have yet to see it to the extent that I envision and would desire after coming from Whitworth. This is to be expected I suppose. I know that being at a small, Christian school like Whitworth is quite a different thing from the career world. But beyond the accountability and fellowship I have developed with friends at Whitworth, I desire to be involved in the local community -- to reach out and build friendship and engage in volunteer work of some sort. This may not always be easy, especially in the Foreign Service context as I am coming to see, but I must think of it as simply a greater challenge. I deem the rewards of building such community as far worth it. I think this is one of the main things Whitworth's Murdock Lives of Commitment program has helped me to learn. Family and work always make for busy days, but that is no true excuse for being cloistered. There must be a way to do this.
Second, I appreciate more than ever the intellectual community I have developed at Whitworth with poli-sci friends and professors. I have much more still to learn, but I think that sometimes I learn as much outside of the classroom as inside from debating issues with the girls or talking with professors. I am beginning to preemptively regret its loss after graduating next year. While getting to know the officers here has been great and I feel comfortable spending hours with the two families I've been with recently, I miss the conversations with my good friends, debating viewpoints and really challenging each other to think about issues from various viewpoints and learning to formulate for ourselves why we think what we think.
I may be being a bit rash in some of my general observations of things here so far, but I'm sure I will adjust them accordingly as the internship progresses.
I feel like my experiences last summer at the State Department and this summer are giving me a very decent picture and grounds upon which to evaluate Foreign Service work...but I need to be careful not to overdo it. My future is not mine to plan, but the Lord's. As part of my task for the last week, I have been scheduling appointments with the various department heads of the embassy. One of them was with Dennis in the communications section. I think that this was my best interview yet. I came away feeling refreshed and with renewed vision. He told me briefly about the work that they do to keep everything running smoothly in the embassy (which was rather impressive) but mostly Dennis touched on his lessons from life, having been to around 100 countries, 48 states, and worked in the White House under a number of presidents, etc. His perspective and attitude about the foreign service seems unique.
There are those who get stuck in the work rut and end up burying themselves in the office (as I have noticed) and they miss out on the true opportunities to experience other cultures and build relationships within the community. It is these aspects which help you learn and grow. It was easy to see in his eyes the value that he attributed to the relationships that he and his wife have built with people all over the world. The friendships that came out of their experiences and his stories of running into these people again later on in life were what he considered the true blessing. What I valued from this conversation and what I had been getting discouraged about is the feasibility of such an approach in this line of work. It can be done, but only if one is intentional about it, taking the time to build the community and friendships. Thank you, Dennis. I had a little more spring in my step the rest of the day.
Observations for the day: In this job, one has to be flexible, easy going, a hard worker, pro-active, and perhaps most important, perceptive. You need to know how to read people and their body language so that you catch the messages behind the words. I'm working with a good group of people who get along well and do good work, but it can be rather humorous at times to watch some of the interactions around here.
I have been walking around old town and through the narrow cobblestone streets today, just enjoying the peaceful evening. This is a lovely town to be in. I have seen more of the city now -- a lot of Soviet block houses, and I even saw the famous TV tower where around 14 people were killed when Gorbachev attempted to quell the independence movement. There is much history to experience here. I still need to go to the KGB museum and others, visit the cathedrals and castles etc.
I forgot to mention that I had a popular Lithuanian snack while out with on of the officers and some Lithuanian girls on Friday -- pigs' ears! Had one piece just so I could tell people I ate it. Was terrible and tasted exactly as you would expect a pig's ear to taste.
[Brief on political situation in Lithuania at moment: Joined NATO in March, EU in May. Just had presidential elections the 10th after former president Paksas was impeached due to ties with Russian mafia and corrupt/illegal dealings. Campaigns have been rather lackluster but were a few candidates running. The two candidates who garnered the most votes will have a run-off soon (if nobody gets over 50 percent, there is a run-off between top two), was little interest in EU elections, and Parliamentary elections are coming up in a couple of weeks. Lithuania is a very pro-U.S. country and likes Americans; we recognized Lithuanian independence during Soviet occupation. However, if a certain candidates wins, things may get a little more difficult for U.S.-Lithuanian relations, but nothing too much to worry about]
I spent the day in Kaidaniai, about an hour and a half from Vilnius, with Renata (FSN). Everybody was tasked to get out into some of the towns to get a sense of what people are feeling in regards to the upcoming presidential election. It was so interesting and such fun. We talked to the director of the unemployment office, the mayor, a group of students, the director of the ice cream factory (yes, we had some ice cream, too), and a group of teachers. It is a small town of about 30,000 people, half in the country, half in the city. It has one of the lowest unemployment rates and is well developed because it enjoys good industrial investment. We came away with rather interesting findings. While it is generally a very politically active town with good voter turnout, people seem very apathetic toward the election and nobody really cares too much who wins. The mayor was rather a progressive fellow, talking about how the national government isn't important, it is local government that counts, etc.
It was important and exciting to the students and teachers that we wanted to visit them and hear their opinions, especially an American. They want me to come back and teach classes to their students as a Peace Corps volunteer. I told them Peace Corps isn't in Lithuania any more, but that I would love to get back to Lithuania if at all possible. Mostly, they can't understand why I would be excited about coming to their country, of all places. I was quite excited with the day when we came back. I helped write a report to send out in a cable the next day.
My main projects right now include updating the Country Commercial Guide (CCG) and doing research on the status of Lithuania's labor market (for young people in particular) and the impact of EU accession. The second project is the more interesting of the two as it requires setting up meetings with youth organizations, student groups at the universities, officials in the ministry of labor, the labor exchange and anyone else who I think it would be valuable to talk to.
What I really enjoy about this project is the chance to go outside the embassy and meet with all of these different people. Today I met with a couple of people at the labor exchange office. One thing I gained from my internship last summer is more confidence in interacting in such settings; I was amazed last year at how well the other intern in my office was able to interact with ambassadors and socialize with various officials. So, I took mental notes, and now I think it is paying off. All in all, I think I am really learning quite a bit that will benefit whatever I end up doing in the future.
The last few days the rain has been keeping me indoors every evening, which has been too bad. I have been studying for the GRE, reading the Central America book I brought, and trying not to be remiss about studying my Spanish while I'm here. The only TV channels in English to watch are BBC and the Travel channel; at least I have the news. Mostly, I have been feeling the absence of friends, family and fellowship. However, I found a couple here in the embassy to go to church with on Sunday!
Until next time. Adieu to you from the land where the sun doesn't set for long.