Thursday, October 05, 2006

More from Melissa Duits '90

We've had some comments from Melissa Duits '90 on the blog, and she's sent a follow up letter to Professor Share she's let me reprint.

Hi Don,

Thanks for your note on the blog. Please feel free to pass this note and photos on to Patrick O'Neil for use on the site.

I have two vivid memories from taking a course from you:

1. Living the dream that everyone has. No, not the 'naked in a public area' one, the 'sleeping through a final' one. Imagine my heart-pounding horror at waking up partway through a final exam. I sprinted across the quad, fumbled to give you a rational explanation, bummed a pen and bluebook off someone, and tried to settle down enough to write essays in what little time remained.

2. Part of your exam involved picking something like six out of ten events or people, writing short essays to identify them and explain their significance. Well, there weren't six I recognized so I picked one at random and tried to write convincingly about it. When I got my exam back, your notation was something along the lines of "well-written and creative, but incorrect."

After graduation, I took a short trip to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Moscow. It was still the Soviet Union then, so my travel companions and I spent a good deal of time looking for bugs in our rooms and trying to figure out if people who approached us and asked for help were sincere or KGB informants. (The lingering effect of growing up in the Reagan era of fear.)

Seeing the general disarray in that part of the world - the poor methods of construction, the inability to keep food on the shelves - made me wonder why we were so fearful of them for so long. In spite of the absurdity of life there, I longed to return.

While waiting for an opportunity, I went to work in Malaysia. My departure was delayed owing to the first Gulf War and Malaysia siding with Iraq. After that brief conflict cooled, I packed my bag and trekked through the jungles of Borneo for over 4 months (yes, that is a long time when you are in the jungle and traveling without another American to commiserate with). Definitely an eye-opening experience, best summed up in the word's of my friend. "This will be a time filled with memories you'll cherish forever, but never wish to repeat."

In 1993, I finally got my wish to return to the Baltics. I worked for a year near Riga, Latvia, coordinating visa, travel, housing, and translator arrangements for humanitarian groups that were coming to work in the Baltics and Russia. I also handled all the administrative needs of a new church and its volunteer foreign workers.

This was more daunting then it sounds as everything was in a state of transition. Latvia had 2 or 3 currencies in 10 months. With no internet yet, I had to take a train 40 minutes from Jurmala to Riga in order to call or send a fax to America. Such errands were frequently hampered by the electric train cables being cut and sold for scrap metal. Phone cables often faced the same fate.

For a dash of irony, I lived with my team in a beachside sanatorium, that had been used by Soviet military officers for rest and recuperation. Our cafeteria had a large mural on the outside wall, depicting proud moments throughout Soviet naval history. When American friends came to visit, they refused to get out of the cab when it tried to drop them by the entrance marked "Majori sanatori." They argued with the driver, "Our friends would not be staying in a mental house." They did not know that sanatorium means spa or resort. Based on the state of decay of the complex, I don't blame their hesitation. They arrived on a dark and stormy night, and the whole place had the appearance of a setting for a haunted horror film.

After a year, I returned to the states and worked at various jobs in Washington and Ohio. I found myself back in Latvia in 1999. At first, I went just for a holiday and to visit old friends, but while visiting, I found myself thinking, "Maybe I should live here again."

So back to Washington to grab a few sweaters, and to wait and see if the world ended (remember Y2K?). Then I was off again and I've been in Riga, Latvia, ever since.

This time, I started out working for a business consultant handling all manner of things. Print design, advertising, web development, management issues, you name it. After about 18 months, a colleague and I decided to start a web development company. But before that took off, we thought we'd help a friend in St Petersberg, Russia, who was begging for help with starting a new business. We knew how to set one up and get things started so off we went, commuting back-and-forth between Riga and St Petersberg for about 6 months.

The business was growing and was starting to take off until September 11, 2001. The new business consisted of offering business training seminars and relied on bringing knowledgeable guest speakers from the states. After September 11th, most speakers refused to fly.

We did our best to help our friend, but as we had only planned to help with the initial set up, we eventually returned to Riga and our commitments there. Our web business never did take off, although we both continue to do web projects on the side. I volunteer with a few non-profit organizations, mainly creating and maintaining their websites, and occasionally helping with fundraisers.

I also work with an American professor (Larry Stout), who has been in a unique position to impact current and future leaders of the Baltic region. Stout has developed a leadership theory, which he uses to teach undergraduate students. He has conducted training for members of the Latvian Parliament and has also worked with managers from organizations such as Siemens, the World Bank, Bank of Latvia, Lattelekom, etc.

Hope for Children

Mes esam lidzas - a children's rehabilitation center

A web vortal for youth with movement disorders

Ideal Leadership (beta site)

Flowers laid at the American embassy in Riga after September 11, 2001. Those aren't photoshopped - someone really placed red, white and blue roses.