President of Estonia to speak at graduation: Honorary degree will recognize history with college

St. Olaf College recently announced that Estonian President Toomas Ilves will speak at this year’s graduation ceremony and will receive an honorary degree from the college.

This choice of graduation speaker comes as the result of an extensive relationship between St. Olaf and President Ilves.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the old Soviet zone turned economically to the West but remained heavily invested in its past rooted in the East. Intrigued by the transitioning region, Professor of Economics Steven Soderlind and Professor of German Lavern Rippley made plans in the mid-1990s to bring students behind the Iron Curtain on an Interim trip now known as Mare Balticum.

Soderlind and Rippley made their first trip with students in 1997, when Ilves was serving as Estonia’s first full ambassador to the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Oles toured the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Estonia, and Rippley recalls asking Ilves to speak to the group.

Ilves treated the students to a talk about his work in Estonia, which involved promoting freedom from the USSR and from the effects of WWII.

“When he became president we managed to extract an invitation to see him in his presidential palace,” Soderlind remembered.

The 2011 Mare Balticum students were the first to see Ilves in his new role as president. Ilves also gave an hour-long lecture to the 2014 group during which he discussed Estonia’s excellence in technology.

Despite its many hardships as a post-Soviet state, the country has flourished in the tech industry, leading Ilves to coin the term “E-stonia.” Soderlind noted that despite thepoverty that permeates the country, everyone has access to broadband and studies coding in school.

“I think it’s that sophistication that intrigues our students the most,” Soderlind said.

Mare Balticum follows the trail of the Hanseatic League, an international sea trading route that dominated Northern Europe in Medieval times. The program is popular with economics students because it offers an economics credit. However, students of many majors, from physics to English, sign up for the trip.

This year, 43 students took the trip, and in past years enrollment has exceeded 50 students. Soderlind estimates that it is among the largest programs to cover so much territory – eight countries – in one trip.

Ilves first came to St. Olaf to visit then-Professor of Psychology Olaf Millert, who emigrated from Estonia to attend Augsburg College and later received his doctoral degree at Harvard University. St. Olaf’s relationship with Ilves has resulted in a scholarship program that brings one student from Estonia every year to study at the college.

According to Rippley, Ilves will receive an honorary degree in acknowledgement of his long relationship with the college as well as his admirable work fighting for Estonian prosperity and independence from Russian influence.

During the Cold War, Ilves joined the U.S.-supported Radio Free Europe, which proved instrumental in disseminating news, information and analysis to countries under the influence of the Soviet Union. As an ambassador, his relationship with U.S. congressmen and Clinton administration officials aided in pushing Estonia toward freedom from Russia and membership in NATO.

Ilves was also responsible for Estonia’s status as one of only five “eastern bloc” countries, and the only country formerly under Soviet rule, to be invited to pursue membership in the E.U.

In 1998, the Economist dubbed Ilves the most successful European foreign minister in recent history. He became president of Estonia in 2006 and was re-elected for a second term in 2011.

“He speaks better English than he speaks Estonian, which is an odd situation for a president, but that’s because he grew up here,” Rippley said.

Ilves was born in Sweden to Estonian parents who were refugees from communism. He later traveled with his family to the U.S., where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia College and a Masters in Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rippley, Soderlind and many graduating seniors and alumni of the Mare Balticum trip look forward to seeing the president again as the graduation speaker.

Photo Courtesy of Lavern Rippley