Last May, Zach Sturman stepped off a plane and into an Eastern European city rife with palpable political tension.
Just a little earlier that month, the three Baltic members of NATO – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – had asked the organization to send them each thousands of ground troops to prevent further hostility from Russia. This call for military support came after months of Russian aggression toward Ukraine, which resulted in Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
The tension within the Baltic states would play a major role in Sturman’s summer, which he spent working in Estonia’s U.S. Embassy as an intern for the U.S. Department of State.
“My application essay for the internship was geared specifically toward Estonia and what’s going on there with increased Russian aggression and NATO relations,” says the junior political science and Spanish double major and astronomy minor, who got the internship with a scholarship from the Harry and Reba Huge Foundation. “My internship was focused on politics and military, so, pretty much every day, I had something to do with NATO or Baltic operations.”
Estonia’s relationship with and proximity to Russia not only shaped much of Sturman’s average workday, but also the impression he had of Estonia prior to his arrival.
“I thought of post-Soviet states as gray, kind of dark and bleak, but I got there, and Tallinn was vibrant,” the Honors College student observes. “It’s one of the most innovative countries in the world: Wi-Fi everywhere, home of Skype, startups in your backyard. And in the summer, there are about 20 hours of daylight, so it’s anything but gray.”
In fact, the long hours of daylight so define Estonian summers that the country’s biggest holiday takes place at the end of June to commemorate the summer solstice.
“Jaanipäev [pronounced: YAWN-ee-PIE- ev] is their midsummer’s day festival,” Sturman explains.
Traditionally, Estonians leave the city and flood the sun-drenched countryside to stay up all night singing and reveling around bonfires. In addition to being a celebration of summer’s balmy weather and bright sunlight, Jaanipäev became synonymous with military victory when the Estonian army defeated Germany on June 23, 1919, in Estonia’s War of Independence. Before that, the holiday survived the Christian crusades of the early 13th century, during which the Baltics’ pagan rituals were uniformly condemned. It has also outlived the decades of Soviet rule, thus cementing Jaanipäev’s place as something truly, uniquely Estonian.
“I also learned that it’s really rare to be invited to one of those as a foreigner. Everyone at the embassy told me they hadn’t been invited yet and it was one of their goals. Within my first month in Estonia, I got invited!” Sturman says, smiling. “It was such an awesome experience: sitting around the bonfire. Later you even go jump into ice-cold ponds and stay up all night celebrating Estonian independence.”
Sturman’s Jaanipäev experience highlights his ability to quickly strike up lasting friendships: “I made a couple of Estonian friends; they’re really great people. I still keep in touch with them.”
In his free time, Sturman and his friends traveled within Estonia so he could get to know the country better and take full advantage of living abroad.
His travels made the Florida native much more knowledgeable about Estonia, which came in handy when he helped arrange visits from American senators, congressmen and even U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.
Although Sturman, the president of the College’s Student Government Association, hopes to begin his career stateside, his internship gave him a greater interest in the foreign service as well as a stronger grasp on the inner workings of American and foreign politics.
“Previously I’d thought of the U.S. government as this large body with a very organized structure: this mysterious, nebulous concept,” Sturman observes. “But once you’re in it, you realize it’s just everyday people working there, contributing to the policies we make. This internship demystified that for me.”
Indeed, by the time he stepped back onto U.S. soil, Sturman had learned a whole lot – not just about foreign politics, but about the colorful culture of Estonia – and, ultimately, about himself.