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5 posts categorized "BAFF"

BAFF fellow traces her journalism career from a strawberry harvest to the White House

By Anna Ūdre, 2018 Baltic American Freedom Foundation fellow

When I was 15, I decided to try out journalism. During the summer of 2012, at only age 15, I applied for an internship at one of the national news agencies in Latvia. No one really took me seriously since I was young and inexperienced. At first, I was given very simple tasks, but by the end of my time there I had written my very first news story. It was about that year's strawberry harvest. That was all it took, I was hooked. Since then, my career has been quite fruitful. I’ve worked for leading online news media, national radio, national newspapers, and a weekly magazine in Latvia and have also taken part in various projects abroad (including Thailand and Uganda), covering such topics as human and minority rights, development and environmental challenges, and other issues.

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Left: Anna reporting from Uganda in 2017. Right: reporting from Thailand in 2015

Thanks to the Baltic American Freedom Foundation (BAFF) scholarship, I found myself in the capital of the U.S. and of politics last summer. I didn't quit my career as a journalist and continued to freelance from time to time for different media in Latvia, but my main job included working closely with the U.S. Congress, administration, and other key institutions on advocating for Baltic-American issues with the Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC). The organization had been collaborating with BAFF fellows before.

I've been very blessed with being in the U.S. during an extremely interesting time. It's been ex-citing to see behind-the-scenes of how the government works and to follow the relationship be-tween two main political parties, and key institutions. The main difference between Latvia and the U.S. is that this country has two main political parties, and people tend to be very passionate about being either "democrats" or "republicans". In Latvia, we have many different parties, and voting is based more on choosing personalities and policies, whereas in the U.S. it's more about historical values that each of the parties stand for. I've been amazed about how passionate Americans are and also about how open Congress is to interacting with constituents. It's a very dynamic scene.

A lot has happened not only domestically in the U.S., but also internationally. It has put this country in a position where serious decisions have to be made, and sometimes there is breaking news not only every day, but every hour.

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Journalists outside the White House, from left, Anna Udre, Arturs Saburovs, Maris Dingelis

The year 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of independence for the Baltic states. During the last century, geopolitics in the Baltics changed significantly with the rise and fall of the former Soviet Union. It's notable that the U.S. never recognized Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as part of the Soviet Union and stood by their freedom. Dozens of centennial events are taking place in the U.S., a country where lots of Baltic people settled during the 20th century while fleeing wars and occupation. This year is about celebrating the diplomatic, economic, cultural, and other ties between our countries.

On April 3, all three presidents of the Baltic states arrived in Washington, D.C. to meet with the president of the U.S. Thanks to the BAFF program, I was in the U.S. and got to be one of the journalists covering the Baltic Summit both for the main online media and for one of the national newspapers in Latvia. The Summit started with a lunch meeting in the White House during which President Trump discussed a number of topics - he congratulated the Baltic states for fulfilling NATO's commitments and reaching 2% of GDP for security matters, confirmed further U.S. support to the Baltic states, and stressed the importance of building relations with countries such as Russia and China, despite the challenges. The room was packed with journalists and it was interesting to observe how everyone was fighting for a better position, in hopes of asking a question. It was my first time seeing President Trump in person. Even though I was occupied with reporting, I felt like it was an important moment - being in the same room with the President of one of the largest countries in the world. 

U.S. President Donald Trump with the presidents of the Baltic States and other high officials having lunch at the White House. Photo credit: Anna Udre

After lunch, all four presidents gathered in the East Wing of the White House for a press conference. The presidents reaffirmed the need for continued close defense cooperation and also the need for establishing closer business cooperation. All Baltic journalists there had been informed beforehand that each country would get to ask one question only. From Latvia, the question had been assigned to a journalist from national television. When the press conference was concluding, President Trump decided to give another chance to Baltic journalists and asked the president of Latvia to "pick a reporter”. The situation was pretty intense.

Press conference with presidents of the Baltic States and President of the U.S. in the East Wing of the White House

Since I hadn't been expecting to ask a question, I was typing on my computer and reporting back to online media about what was happening. Every Baltic journalist was confused about what to do in this situation, and you could feel the whole room getting tense and waiting on what was going to happen. A Latvian diplomat from behind me started poking my shoulder to encourage me to ask a question and to give the president of Latvia another chance to speak. I put my computer down, put my hand up, still not knowing what I was going to ask and to whom, and then it just happened. President Trump looked at me and gave me the floor. Someone gave me the microphone and I stood up, trying not to drop my camera and phone that I still had in my hands. I addressed my question to Mr. Vējonis about his upcoming official visit to Silicon Valley.

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Source: CNN

It all happened very fast and unexpectedly. The lesson learned from this situation is to always be prepared. There can be protocol and rules, but we are all human, and things can change. Opportunities must be seized.

The Baltic Summit was followed by a U.S.-Baltic Business Summit at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. At the end of the day, the Baltic leaders attended a dinner hosted by the Atlantic Council, where high-level representatives from various fields participated, including National Security Advisor LTG H.R. McMaster. During his speech, McMaster commented that "The people of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, who endured the devastation of the Second World War, decades of Soviet occupation and communism, and emerged proud, strong, sovereign, free, and prosperous. These are three of the most creative and innovative nations on Earth."

It was a historic day and it turned out to be a big deal for me. I'm happy to have been there and to have seized the opportunity. I'm also very thankful to the BAFF scholarship for giving me the opportunity to gain relevant professional experience in the U.S. and to grow as a person. In only 11 months I've experienced great professional growth by working at an American organi-zation, met amazing people, and become more confident about who I am. I'm excited to return back to Latvia.

To see Anna's question and President Vējonis' response, play the video below! 



Transporting to the Future: How a Young Latvian Entrepreneur is Changing How We Fly

"BAFF gives you an opportunity to learn entrepreneurship, to see the world from a different point of view, and to create a network of skillful and talented international friends who you might cross paths with again in your future ventures."


The Alum of the Month for March is Elviss Straupenieks, former participant of the Baltic-American Freedom Foundation (BAFF) and creator of AirBoard, the world’s smallest manned aircraft. The young entrepreneur enrolled in the BAFF program to gain experience practicing and understanding the relational aspects of leadership on the path to pursuing his personal and business goals. For Elviss, participating in BAFF was the perfect opportunity. “Learning how to focus on gaining concrete leadership tools enabled me to create transparency and direction while at the same time involving individuals and groups of people in meaningful dialogues about goals associated with my business,” he says. “The most important factor that made me interested in BAFF, however, was creating a network of skillful and talented international friends for my future ventures.” Coming to Portland, Maine on the BAFF program offered Elviss an opportunity to make connections and gain the leadership skills needed to take his inventive idea one step further. But that’s not where his story begins.


Elviss’ interest in entrepreneurship and revolutionizing personal transportation started at a young age. He was only twelve years old when he began to recognize the lack of creativity in personal vehicles and contemplate the future of transportation. In an interview, he tells us, “It was obvious that on top of safety, functionality and ergonomic improvements over the last hundred years, a car still continues to be a metal box with four wheels and the fundamental way we move around has not changed for the better. In fact, many of the roads we used 100 years ago are still present, thus limiting the transport time from point A to B with countless relief projections and ground obstacles. It was clear to me that the future of personal transportation is going to be some sort of flying transport. For such an air transport to be mass-used it should be as simple as possible. Thus, the idea of an intuitive aircraft controlled by shifting the person’s weight (AirBoard) was born.”


Though technology on the consumer market wasn’t quite yet advanced enough to support Elviss’ idea, he patiently followed advancements in technology such as flight controllers, speed controllers, batteries, small brushless motors, and radio controlled vehicles until, two years later, he recognized that key parts reached a point of advancement and economic viability that would allow for his aircraft to turn from concept to reality. For years, Elviss spent all of his free time after school, on the weekends, and during summer breaks learning about aerodynamics and the engineering principles necessary to develop the aircraft. Then, things started to get serious. “I started computer-aided design (CAD), aerodynamic simulations, stress simulations, renderings, and lift-off calculations with hundreds of different iterations and virtual prototypes.” Elviss considers this determination and strong focus on his business to be the keys to success in his journey creating the world’s smallest manned aircraft, among other entrepreneurial pursuits. However, that’s not the only element needed to be successful, he says. “Having a fast-paced and tremendous work ethic, combined with the ability to overcome obstacles, is hugely helpful in day-to-day challenges, but patience is key for achieving the long-term goals.”


Determination, contemplation, innovation, and patience. These are the makings of an 18-year-old CEO.

We asked Elviss what it’s like to run a company at this age when most of his peers are going off to college, travelling on a gap year, or just beginning to craft their futures. “In my opinion, being a young, risk-taking entrepreneur is a competitive edge. When you don’t have the baggage from the past, it’s usually much easier to look at things from a totally different perspective.” With this fresh perspective, AirBoard was born despite the odds. “After faced with the challenge to open a business in Latvia at the age of 16, where the legal age restriction is 18, I found civil law Article 221 that allowed me to gain legal majority in the court of Latvia. After 6 months of rigorous paperwork and long processes, I gained the legal majority that allowed me to receive investment, employ people, and sign contracts. To this date, it is the single only case in Latvia where the court has given a positive decision for entrepreneurial reasons.”

“AirBoard is a Segway crossed with a hoverboard” – Daily Mail

Here’s how it works:
“AirBoard is the World’s smallest manned aircraft. It is an all-electric personal air vehicle controlled by shifting weight. It moves in the direction you are leaning. The rider is standing in a vertical position with his feet on the board and both hands holding handles. When turned on, the aircraft starts to hover in constant height from the ground. Pilot can use a button located on the handle in a thumb reachable area to adjust the flight altitude and lean further to accelerate the vehicle. The more a person shifts forward, the faster the vehicle flies forward.”


“AirBoard Remote App shows important data like AirBoard’s battery life, flight speed, compass, and level. User can control flight level or altitude in which the multicopter is moving. The board can be locked and unlocked with a free mobile application. When the board is locked, power button is inactive and motion detection GPS alarm is turned on. Vehicle can be unlocked without ever taking the mobile device out of the pocket because the vehicle senses when the paired phone is nearby. App allows the customer to update the board software when an update that contains crucial fixes or new features are available.” Learn more about how AirBoard works.

Thank you, Elviss, for sharing your story with us!

Do you have a story to share? Email alumni@ciee.org to get started.

Expanding Horizons in New York City

By Laima Eglite, Baltic-American Freedom Foundation Intern

When I arrived at the beginning of my program, it was my first time in the United States. and from the minute I landed in JFK airport still everyday something surprising and new appears in American culture. The biggest difference from my home in Latvia was the size of everything. Buildings, cars and scale of everything that Americans do.

My first month here I visited MetLife Stadium in New Jersey to attend a Coldplay concert. I had never seen such an enormous complex built mainly for sport events. Also its not correct to compare to my home country because the population here is different by tens of millions of people.

I found that in America everybody I met was super friendly and open. People tend to give compliments on streets or on trains just to express their opinion. It’s much easier here to start conversations with strangers and find new fantastic addition to your friend group.

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In front of the Brooklyn Bridge

I have been in the United States for four months now, and I can truly say that I have become more open minded and accepting of different nationalities and their cultural background. I didn’t always have this before because my home country is not very diverse, I would guess only 5-8 nationalities living there. Here in U.S. it’s the opposite, especially New York. There are so many communities and international people. It’s always a big honor to meet new people and listen to their story about how they ended up in U.S. and what life they have now. I really hope that my story will inspire other young people to try this program.

I had several reasons for coming to the U.S. Mostly it’s in my character: I’m a person who cannot sit in place for long, and I love challenging myself. I love living out of my comfort zone and this feeling keeps me going. Since I was a little kid I have always wanted to spend time in the U.S., especially to New York, and try my luck here. The rest is history and I can truly say that every single day I have to pinch myself to believe that I’m really living my dream now. And I can only say that I love it and enjoy it very very much.

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On the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I feel very lucky to be working in my field, clothing manufacturing and fashion industry management. People I meet at my work are remarkably inspiring. I see how hard they work and how much they sacrifice to succeed. This feeling and the environment pushes me every day to be better person and never give up on my own dreams.

My main goal when I come back is to inspire people, mostly young professionals. So many young people are scared to try this opportunity, to step out of their usual work/study schedule. I want to be an ambassador and give public speeches at universities and schools sharing my experience and the intellectual growth of my journey in the United States.

What I would say to other students in my home country is, just apply! This experience will change your life for the better.

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On one of my trips outside the city

BAFF Alum Virginijus Sinkevicius Elected to Lithuanian Parliament

Former Baltic American Freedom Foundation intern, Virginijus Sinkevicius, has won a seat in the 2nd round of Lithuanian Parliament elections as MP for his personal constituency in Vilnius's Seskine district. He defeated his running mate, Audronius Azubalis, Conservative Party member and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, in a landslide victory. Virginijus ran as the 26th member on the list of the Lithuanian Peasant and Green Party for a seat in both Parliament and his personal constituency in Vilnius. Virginijus is the second youngest member of this newly elected Parliament and currently heads the Regulatory Affairs Team of the Project Management Department at “Invest Lithuania”.
Virginijus 1Virginijus is a graduate from Aberystwyth University, UK with a diploma in Bachelor of Economic, Social and Political Studies, as well as from Maastricht University, Holland, with a Master's in European Studies. He has also interned at the office of the Prime Minister of Lithuania in the Regional and Ethnic Issues Unit.

As a participant of the BAFF Professional Internship Program, Virginijus enjoyed his training period at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) from 2013-2014. During his year in the U.S., Virginijus became an active member of the Lithuanian-American community, and taught children at the Lithuanian Saturday School in Washington, D.C. He writes, “I am thankful to BAFF for the unique opportunity provided. I had an extremely positive experience in the United States capital Washington DC, which taught me exceptional lessons, boosted my self-confidence, and encouraged me to reach the highest goals in life. I am grateful that the people of Lithuania evaluated my experience and gave me a chance to serve them.”

During his time in the U.S. Virginijus was a frequent contributor to the BAFF blog, which you can read here. Congratulations, Virginijus!
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Love at Third Sight, Deep in the Heart of Texas

By Marta Lange, CIEE Baltic-American Freedom Foundation Intern

Admiring the statue of cardiac surgeon Dr. Michael E. DeBakey at Houston Methodist Hospital

It was a cold and windy December morning as I left my beloved, snowy Latvia and landed in sunny Texas. Houston greeted me with skyscrapers, palm trees with Christmas lights and a swimming pool in my backyard. In the so called Lone Star State Texas you can find surprises on every corner. At the beginning for me: a person who comes from a country of 2-million people getting used to Houston was pretty hard. Understanding people, their culture, the size of life, city and food portions was quite a challenge. At the beginning I stubbornly did not want to admit that I was experiencing culture shock, but now looking back I realize I had it.

At first I struggled with small talk in the elevators and the fake-smile "how-are-you" culture. To be honest, this positive attitude sticks, and now after a year I can say that I will miss saying "Hi" to complete strangers on the street. The Southern hospitality in Texas is something that a very Nordic person like me will never forget. That is one thing I could not understand at the beginning, but now I like it! That is one of the factors that really made me love Texans: being polite, and really meaning it, opening the doors for each other, saying "ma'am" and "sir" to everyone regardless the age. I fell in love with Houston only after two trips away from it. I had to leave it and come back to realize that I love it. The value and magic at the same time is the Texan people.

International experience enriches someone who has lived abroad, especially if you are in close contact with the locals and other foreigners. Tasting the culture, enjoying the adventure of something unknown. Then, leaving the place that has been your home for several months or years, you always leave and take something, so at the end your Home is everywhere. That is what the international exchange means to me: the inspiring people I meet and the feeling that I can find something to relate with, to feel like at Home in every place I visit. It feels like being a migrant bird that flies forth and back every season.

After the training of every Medical Engineer's dream: the Da Vinci Surgical System during the "Re-Evolution Summitt" at Houston Methodist Hospital

My internship took place in Cardiovascular Surgery Department of Houston Methodist Hospital. The main fields of research included radiation safety, robotic tele-presence systems and ultrasound diagnostics. Also, I have gained a whole lot more skills and strengths that cannot be measured, but have significantly improved, like leadership, management, language and networking skills that will help to develop my ideas in the future.

When I return home in Latvia, I would like to continue my work in the field of Medical Devices, innovations and research. Our current Healthcare system is about to experience a lot of changes, and I would like to give my input. I feel that we have to remember the simple things, the simple truth: that the priority is the patient and only healthy and happy, satisfied people can build a strong society in a country. Last but not least, my dream is to improve the conditions, environment, the system and funding for the Nursing homes and Hospices in Latvia.

Working together with colleagues for a radiation safety project in the Hybrid Operation Room at Houston Methodist Research Institute

I strongly believe that the young professionals from programs, like BAFF, HAESF and other organizations have the capabilities and the necessary skill set to become leaders and make a change for a better future!

The J-1 Visitor Exchange Program is a wonderful opportunity to experience The United States, immersing yourself into the life, the culture, the work, what is most important - the people. For sure, this program gives great opportunities for your chosen career path and even greater possibilities to network and share ideas!

Building bridges with Hilton Lam during Intern Leadership Enrichment and Development program (I-LEAD) in Washington, DC