She first came to Lithuania as a teacher of English almost 30 years ago. It was planned as a one-time adventure trip to a former Soviet country. Today Dr. Marlene Wall is the President of LCC International University in Klaipėda, a unique and one of the most well-reputed private universities in the region. A Canadian born in Uruguay who has lived in several countries and travelled multiple others, a true citizen of the world, Dr. Wall has witnessed the tremendous transformation of our country, its people and the city of Klaipėda with her own eyes. She says she is privileged to share this journey with Lithuanian colleagues and friends in a country with a proud history, heritage and ambition for a great future. A country that she has been calling her only home for 18 years now.
Dr. Marlene Wall © Personal archive
Dr. Wall, you first came to Lithuania in the summer of 1991 to teach English at the Summer Language Institute that would later become LCC. How had you come up with this plan and what did you find here upon your arrival?
The person who invited me had led a team to China several summers earlier, so she knew my background as a teacher. Her question to me was “Would you like to teach English in the Soviet Union this summer?” Of course! Because I enjoyed traveling and experiencing new adventures, I thought that the Soviet Union would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip. I mean, who visits the enemy country?
A freedom poster dr. Wall picked up in Panevėžys from the Sąjūdis office in the summer of 1991 © Personal archive
The Summer Language Institute was hosted in Panevėžys that summer. It’s a summer I will never forget! It was easy to fall in love with the people of Lithuania. Our 100 students were eager to learn, but equally eager to talk about their world and their hopes and dreams. The countless walks around the lake in Panevėžys, the occasional meal in the Soviet-style municipal cafeteria, the fabulous ice cream cones, living on the 10th floor of the Panevėžys hotel with an armed guard outside our elevator 24/7 (at the hotel’s request), the colorful costumes on national holidays... I can still visualize the scenes. And everywhere you looked you could see evidence of the Soviet regime and of a deep longing for independence. The Sąjūdis office behind the hotel with its quiet but bold messages. Posters on the walls of buildings that said: Red army, go home! Anti-tank barricades around the parliament building in Vilnius. A weekend visit to Klaipėda where tanks stood next to the statue of Lenin.
You left being sure it probably was for good. But further events proved your come-back to Lithuania was very possible. What happened after you crossed the border that summer?
After a sad farewell to our students and the city officials, a farewell that we assumed was for life, our team left in mid-August – for a train-ride to Leningrad and Moscow before we returned to North America. I remember very clearly that on Monday morning, August 19, as we were still in our hotel in Leningrad, we suddenly heard people running through the hallways yelling something. Of course, not being able to understand Russian, we didn’t know what was happening. But we knew something big was happening. We could see small groups of 2 or 3 people huddled around white messages glued to the walls of buildings, being informed of “something.”
That night, August 19, our itinerary was a night train to Moscow. We arrived the next morning to a grey rainy city... with tanks moving slowly through the streets. That afternoon we went into the center of the city for lunch. After eating our pizza, we walked down the street toward Red Square. When we came to the corner, we were about 10 meters from tanks. And we noticed that regular citizens were jumping up onto the tanks. We quickly decided that this was an unusual photo opportunity, so several of us gave our cameras to a friend and jumped up on the tank as well – for a total of about 20 seconds.
The photo was proof enough of being part of something much bigger than ourselves. Only days later did we recognize the global impact of the events that had unfolded in front of our eyes. The end of the Soviet Union now meant that the friends I had made in Lithuania had the independence that they had longed for! And now the thought of returning to Lithuania did not seem impossible.
You have spent most of Lithuania's independent years here, being a part of the change and witnessing the progress. So, how has Lithuania changed and what are the most promising shifts that stand out?
I kept returning to Lithuania for teaching almost every year since 1991. I also served as a board member at LCC International University from 1996 to 2001 with trips to Klaipėda twice a year for the board meetings. In July 2002 I moved to Klaipėda, and I l have lived here since. So, yes, on a basic economic level, I have had the unique opportunity to watch a country move from the Soviet Union (in 1991) to the European Union (in 2004) to today (2020). If I had known back then that I would be so connected to Lithuania for so many years, I would have tried to keep track of the first time I saw things. I remember life before plastic bags and getting groceries in 1992 with the cashier showing me the price on an abacus. I remember when plastic window frames became the symbol of renovation and change, and when car alarms were the music of the street.
Meeting with the President Dalia Grybauskaitė at the Presidential Palace © Personal archive
But more importantly, I have been humbled to share this journey with Lithuanian colleagues and friends in a country with a proud history, heritage and ambition for a great future. When I think about the August 23, 1989 “hands across the Baltics” as a symbol of non-violent resistance against the Soviet regime, and when I remember the 1992 Olympic basketball team winning the bronze medal (I was in Klaipėda that summer), and being part of the country as we joined the European Union on May 1, 2004 I realize that the strength of the Lithuanian people has kept this country united through the difficult years, and is now the reason for the prosperity of my favorite Baltic country.
As the world is currently united in this pandemic, it provides a unique backdrop in which to compare and contrast countries’ responses and rationale for those responses. I am proud to be part of the Lithuanian context. I respect the systems and the reporting. And I wish good health and strength for everyone.
I am excited to have witnessed Lithuania’s visual transformation from the early 90s to today. The stunning architecture of the cities, the prosperous farm lands, and the beauty of the Baltic Sea are enough to draw tourists to visit. But the opportunities for growth and productivity and the start-up culture and the seaside location should be enough to keep people here. I wish for a continued future-oriented approach to Klaipėda growth.
Klaipėda and LCC International University became your home many years ago, and your career here is outstanding – you had been serving as an Academic Vice President for ten years before becoming the President of LCC nine years ago. What does it take to be the President of the global university based in Klaipėda, Lithuania?
What does it take? Passion! Passion for the compelling mission and vision of the university. Passion for the dedicated colleagues. And ultimately, passion for the students. I cannot imagine working at a “job” without some level of passion for the work or the people. Passion seeks a better tomorrow. Passion creates persistence. Passion offers patience.
Being surrounded by colleagues and students who have chosen to be at LCC puts all of us into a unique context as risk-takers. LCC, as a truly international university, pushes us to constantly be navigating culture and meaning. LCC is not “home” to any culture, and yet that means it is “home” to every culture. With 72% of our students coming from outside Lithuania (from over 50 countries), we welcome students from diverse language and cultural and religious backgrounds. We welcome students from countries that you and I may never have the opportunity to visit, and now we have the opportunity to learn about. We welcome students from countries that are often political enemies, and yet at LCC we celebrate what we have in common, and we learn to live and study and cook and play together – in peace. In fact, we’ve been told by NATO officials that we are doing the peacekeeping work of NATO at LCC. May that always be so.
NATO officers visiting LCC International University in summer of 2018 © Personal archive
How did it feel to become the first female university president back in 2011? Have you ever wanted or thought of becoming a top-level administrator when you decided to become a teacher?
My mother was a teacher, and as I was growing up, she encouraged me NOT to become a teacher. She knew it was a difficult role. However, it turned out that I became a teacher! And I absolutely loved my years in the classroom! I was challenged by my interaction with students, and I was always amazed at their learning and development way beyond what was expected.
Posing with three former presidents of LCC's Student Council from Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan © Personal archive
Most of my teaching career was spent at the high school level, teaching English to immigrant students in the United States. Eventually I moved into an administrative role, during which time I also worked on my doctoral dissertation in Curriculum and Instruction from Kansas State University in the USA.
My Bachelor's degree is in secondary education and English language while my Master's is in Applied Linguistics. My background as an English teacher connected me to Lithuania in 1991. My move to Klaipėda in 2002, as Academic Vice President at LCC, allowed me to pair teaching and curriculum development and administration. At no point in my life did I anticipate becoming the president of a university. In fact, my professional trajectory has been about “walking through open doors,” accepting the opportunities that are in front of me. I am grateful for each stage of my career. It is only when we look back that we see how these stages are connected, and how one prepares us for the next.
Becoming the first female university president in Lithuania is, I suppose, an interesting statistic. But I have lived in Lithuania long enough to have admired many female leaders in this country.
You truly are what people call “a citizen of the world” – born in Uruguay, raised in the USA, holding Canadian citizenship, worked and travelled in multiple countries all across the globe and finally settled in Klaipėda. Can you share your journey and lead us along to your current stop here in Klaipėda?
I am the perfect example of what is called “a third culture kid” (TCK). I was born in Montevideo, Uruguay – to parents from Canada, who were working there for 4 years. I am a citizen of Canada, but have only lived there for 10 years, as a child. I graduated from high school in Asuncion, Paraguay – where our family lived for 4 years. I went to university (BA, MA, PhD) in the United States, and began my professional career there. And now I’ve lived in Lithuania for 18 years.
Sometimes I say that I live in Lithuania because I was born in Uruguay. By that I mean that I have grown up and always been in international contexts, in contexts of “otherness,” of rarely being a citizen of the place where I live. But what that has given me is an immediate appreciation of where I am. When I get nostalgic, I’m not sure that it is ever for a “place.” It may more often be for “people.”
In the city of her birth, Montevideo, in July 2019 © Personal archive
If you want to visit your family, which country do you go to?
When I want to visit my family, I visit my brother and his family in the USA. The rest of my family lives in Canada.
How does Klaipėda feel compared to all those places you have lived in? Being an expat, what do you think makes Klaipėda a valid choice to come for studies or for work?
In looking back at the various countries I have lived in, I realize that I’ve often lived in land-locked places. So, I must say that being on the Baltic Sea coast places the city of Klaipėda into an exceptionally beautiful category.
I think that Klaipėda is a wonderful choice for studies or for work. It is small enough to easily navigate (without traffic jams), and yet it is big enough to have many of the amenities of larger cities. It has forests and beaches and the sea, all within walking distance. It feels safe.
My favorite city vibes are along the river on a summer evening, or early mornings in Old Town during the Sea Festival – when the city hasn’t woken up yet. The cultural opportunities are good – and I look forward to the new concert hall. I love seeing the cruise ships arrive throughout the summers (and I hope they return soon). I look forward to further development along the water, with the future “Memel City” project. We need to take advantage of the beauty of the shores.
LCC definitely makes Klaipėda feel very international. Other than that, how else you see LCC contributing to the city's current identity? How does it fit in the big picture Klaipėda has an ambition to create – that of an open, progressive and advanced city?
LCC is almost 30 years old. In those years, we have welcomed thousands of LCC professors and students and board members and guests to Klaipėda from all over the world. That means that there are thousands of city ambassadors who now carry their memories and experiences across the globe. In those 30 years, we have contributed to strategic conversations and projects, we have built strong relationships with businesses and with schools and with churches. We are eagerly cooperating with “Klaipėda ID” and other city planners in their ambitious efforts toward creating a bright and progressive future for Klaipėda.
Dr. Wall with recent Masters' graduates © Personal archive
And we believe that we have an extraordinary talent pool of young people, who are educated in an academic community where critical thinking and creativity and communication are essential outcomes. These multilingual, cross-culturally competent young people are our future. I believe that Klaipėda would benefit greatly by “hanging on to” our young graduates. But that cannot happen by reaching out to them the day after graduation. That requires collaboration through internships and work experience during their years at LCC, in order to give them a taste of what life in Klaipėda could be. I would be very excited to see a future Klaipėda that attracts LCC graduates to stay. There are possibilities, and we look forward to keeping these conversations going.
LCC is a unique institution with no analogies in the region. What makes this education and experience so special if students come here from all over the world?
For Lithuanian students who are eager to experience the world, I would argue that coming to LCC is perhaps even better than going to school in London. What tends to happen when students leave their home countries to study elsewhere is that they tend to seek out “their own.” So, Lithuanians in London find other Lithuanians in London. That’s absolutely fine, but it doesn’t offer the full richness of that international experience. At LCC, there is no majority culture. Everyone is integrated – in the residence halls, in the classrooms, on the basketball court, in the lounges. This offers an incredibly unique learning opportunity. It means that we watch the news differently, now that we have friends from Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan on our campus, or now that we share culture nights with our students from Ukraine and Georgia and Armenia and Albania and Kazakhstan. And what beauty when a cultural event that is shared by Russian and Lithuanian students highlights what they have in common.
Dr. Wall standing in front of the LCC's own basketball team that had 7 countries represented in 2019 © Personal archive
LCC is a private Christian liberal Arts university. Can you address each of these three aspects of LCC’s identity – does private mean expensive, does Christian mean it's meant only for Christian believers and, finally, what are the benefits of liberal arts education?
This model is unique in Europe, but it is a more common model of higher education in the United States. As a private institution, we receive very little funding from the government. Our funding (for capital projects as well as student support) comes from private sources – primarily individuals and family foundations who believe in this kind of education and who see huge potential in the students that come to LCC. Our tuition remains modest because we do not exist for the rich students. We exist for the right students, students with leadership potential and who are interested in this model of education. We offer hundreds o thousands of euros each year to our students as both need-based and merit-based financial support, and we help students find summer employment opportunities in order to ensure that LCC remains accessible to our students.
As a Christian institution, we value the whole person. We care about a student’s intellectual growth and also his/her mental and spiritual and physical wellbeing. We base our values on Christian principles. Integrity and ethical practices are important. Respect for others within a diverse community matters. While all students take 4 courses from the Theology Department, we do not expect that only Christians attend LCC. We have students who are Muslim, Yazidi, atheist, and from every Christian tradition – Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant.
As a liberal arts institution, we ensure a multidisciplinary approach to education. Because the average person will change jobs (and even careers) many times within their life, we believe we are preparing young people not simply for their first job after graduation, but for a lifetime of career opportunities. We are preparing them to be lifelong learners. In addition to a deep knowledge of a particular discipline (currently six Bachelor level programs), students will also leave with the additional outcomes we have defined at LCC: leadership that serves, conflict transformation, multicultural perspective, effective communication, community building and civic engagement, Christian world view, multidisciplinary knowledge, and critical thinking.
The current pandemic is a challenge to educational institutions that need to think of new creative ways of operating and re-thinking their strategies for the future. How does LCC adapt to these circumstances and use this crisis to change, mature and be prepared for turbulences?
The current global pandemic is challenging for everyone. As a university, we moved quickly to a remote learning mode in mid-March. Our graduation which was scheduled to be on May 2 has been postponed until December 12. We still have 140 students living in our residence halls because they were unable to return to their home countries. So, we have been busy adapting.
Interviewed by LRT regarding international students in the residence halls during current pandemic © Personal archive
As we now look toward the upcoming academic year, we are working with multiple scenarios and are modeling a number of options. Will we be face-to-face or will we continue online for a while longer? If we are face-to-face, will there be restrictions regarding density of living spaces or classrooms? How can we support our students who had summer employment plans and now will have no income to pay for next fall? Should we adjust the academic calendar in any way? Will borders be open to allow students free movement to and from Lithuania? The variables are many. Right now, we continue to create various scenarios, leaving decisions as long as possible to ensure that we are working with the most current environmental data.
In everything, we are committed to protecting our mission, and we are working hard to remain agile. And I believe we likely need to remove the phrase “back to normal” from our vocabulary. I believe that we will never truly return to the way it was, because we will have learned how to do things better as we also learn to let go.
LCC definitely has a mission, but what about your personal mission – can you share that?
That’s a great question. While I don’t have a personal mission “statement,” I do value the idea of hospitality as missional. I often refer to the Catholic priest Henri Nouwen’s definition of hospitality. He says that it is “the creation of an open space where a stranger can become a friend.” And, he adds, “Sometimes it requires an articulate not knowing.” In order to be truly hospitable, one must allow the guest (the stranger) a space to talk. And one must practice active listening, the kind of listening that asks the second question. I believe that LCC is that kind of institution. And I try to be that kind of person.
People know you as a passionate traveller who has been basically everywhere. After the pandemic is called-off, all challenges are resolved and we can travel again – what is the next country you absolutely want to visit?
I have been privileged to travel a lot – to probably 60 countries. My travel photos (and the accompanying memories) are perhaps my greatest possessions. My biggest fear, as we will eventually come out of this pandemic, is that international travel will become „the enemy.“ What a loss that would be for the world! I look forward to future travel. Where to? Good question. I‘ve spent much too long thinking of the next country to visit. I‘d like to see the northern lights sometime and I‘d love to see the fjords of Norway.