Negotiating cultural barriers, students examine
a sensitive chapter in Estonia’s history
Following on their immersion in the experience of the Baltic people through former Gaudino Scholar Lois Banta’s 2016 “Documenting Stories of Escape and Survival” Winter Study course, Williams seniors Emma McAvoy ’17 and Alexandra Mendez ’17 (a Gaudino Student Trustee), interned for two months in the summer of 2017 at the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory in Tallinn, Estonia. Emma presented their project as part of a panel at the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies conference, hosted by Stanford, in June 2018. During their internships, Emma and Alex worked on developing an exhibit for the Museum of the Occupations in Tallinn, and helped organized a major conference. They also analyzed the oral histories collected by the students in the Winter Study 2016 course and developed educational materials based on those interviews.
As McAvoy wrote in a reflection on her experience, “Before I spent time in Estonia I thought I understood what was meant by uncomfortable learning. Naively, I thought that I could imagine what would be uncomfortable about my time there, outline it in my proposal, and then experience and learn what I had predicted. I knew my experience would be uncomfortable. Discomfort is an inherent part of the unfamiliar. I would be immersed: interacting with Estonia and Estonians through a cultural and language barrier while working on a very sensitive part of their national history. Estonia’s recent history is a history of occupation. It is an uncomfortable history not only because it is a history of mass deportations and murders, but because it is a history that has been suppressed and is just now being revealed.
What I have learned is that I only had an abstract idea of what Professor Gaudino meant; I only truly understood what uncomfortable learning is towards the end of my time in Estonia. Uncomfortable learning was not an experience, it was a change in perspective. It was, above all, committing oneself to learning. Throughout these two months I found myself stuck between being too sympathetic and then overly critical. To me, uncomfortable learning was finding the balance between these two. It was learning to understand where a certain opinion and history comes from, but then having enough perspective and knowledge to stand against those beliefs when necessary. It is a commitment to challenge and question: to not shy away from hard topics even when they might be uncomfortable. Above all, uncomfortable learning requires adapting and connecting an outsider’s perspective with an insider’s understanding.”
The broader campus community had the opportunity to learn about the experience of Estonians under 50 years of Soviet occupation during a week-long visit to Williams by two master’s students, Jüri Käosaar and Brigit Rae, from Tallinn University in Estonia. Käosaar and Rae had dinner with students from Banta’s Winter Study course, sat in on three courses (Oral History, Intro to Comparative Politics, Documentary Fictions), met Professors Bill Wagner (Russian History) and Olga Shevchenko (Sociology of Post-Soviet culture), and gave a presentation in the Global Studies colloquium: “A View from the Baltics: Russian Relations, Nonviolent Revolution, and Historical Memory.” Their home-stay was hosted by a senior College administrator and his wife. With Banta, Jüri and Brigit also visited the annual meeting of the Boston Estonian Society to recruit future interviewees. With the next pair of Williams students set to intern this coming summer in Tallinn, Banta hopes these connections will foster a longer-term exchange between the two cohorts of students.