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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!