Ostensibly, the trip was about business. On May 6, 12 UMHB students boarded a plane with their professors, Larry Locke, Kim Thornton, and Chris Langford, for a three-week study abroad trip to Lithuania. Their focus was to learn about business practices in Eastern Europe and serve as a consulting team for a Lithuanian firm whose owner wanted to expand into western markets. But along the way, they celebrated the importance of freedom and faith by planting a small cross bearing the seal of UMHB on a Lithuanian hillside, as a gesture of compassion and support.
The hillside is known as the Hill of Crosses; it is located far from the bustle of cities, in a rural area of northern Lithuania. The precise origin of the monument is unknown, but it is believed that crosses were first placed on the hillside to mark the graves of unknown soldiers buried there after an unsuccessful uprising against the Russian government in 1831. Through the years, families who could not locate the bodies of loved ones killed in wars and protests against the Russian regime would place crosses on the hill in their memories.
Officials during the Russian occupations, as well as during the Nazi occupation in World War II, repeatedly removed the crosses from the hill and bulldozed the site at least three times, but the Lithuanians continued to erect crosses on the hill as a sign of their allegiance to their religion and national heritage. When Lithuania regained its freedom in 1990, the site became a destination point for Christian pilgrims from around the world. Today more than 100,000 crosses cover the hillside bearing testimony to the persistence of Christian faith through troubled times.
When Professor Locke learned they would have a chance to visit the hill, he asked friends in the art department to create a cross for them to take to the site, to represent UMHB. Professor Hershall Seals and art major Jenna Donnell worked together to design and fabricate a cross covered in burnished aluminum with a cast pewter UMHB seal set in the center. “Most of the crosses at the site are wooden; some of them are metal. There are even some stone crosses that have been installed there,” explained Larry Locke. “We hope that ours will last a long time because it is sheathed in metal.”
The Hill of Crosses was but one of a series of memorable stops on the group’s three-week trip. The group visited castles, Catholic, Anglican, and Russian Orthodox churches, a former Nazi concentration camp, and an old KGB prison that is now a museum about the KGB during the Russian occupation of Lithuania.
Home base for the group was the city of Klaipeda, where the professors and students lived and held classes on the campus of LCC International University.
“The university was formed in 1990, just as the Soviets were pulling out of Lithuania,” said Locke. “The original name was Lithuania Christian College, but when they achieved university status, they changed it to LCC International University. They attract students from all over Eastern Europe, some of whom are Christians, and some of whom are not. It is one of only a few English-speaking, American-style universities in Eastern Europe; because of this, it is considered desirable to get your education there. The students are taught with a very Christian worldview, and they develop strong English skills. When they return to their home countries, they are typically considered good candidates for positions of leadership. So in a sense, LCC is re-Christianizing the former Soviet states, all by itself.”
Upon their arrival in Klaipeda, the students received their first lesson on adjusting to a culture different than their own. “The first day we arrived, we took them on a quick, round-the-block tour to show them where we were in the city,” said Locke. “We stopped at a grocery store. We gave each of them 50 Euros and told them, ‘Go in that store and buy what you want for breakfast for the next two weeks, plus snacks and things like that; take it back to the dorm and put it in your fridge.’ It was a great experience, because there was very little English writing on the products. In addition, Lithuanians have what seems like 20 different varieties of milk, all differing in their fat content, so the students had to figure out which ones were more like cream, which ones were more like whole milk. It was fun watching them go through the grocery store, trying to figure out which boxes were oatmeal and which ones were corn flakes.”
The UMHB students stayed in the university’s dormitories and roomed with LCC students for the first two weeks of the trip. They rubbed shoulders with students from Syria and Iraq as well as from Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, and Lithuania. Six LCC students also joined them for classes each weekday morning from 9:00 a.m. until noon. “My favorite memory of the trip is interacting with the international students,” said student Houston Meller. “They went out of their way to show us hospitality and made us feel welcome in any way they could.”
The combined group studied Fundamentals of Business Management, and the UMHB students also studied Business Law. In addition to the usual quizzes, tests, and presentations, the management class was assigned the project of working with the owner of a company called Terekas. Located in Klaipeda, the company manufactures thick plastic tubes that, when inserted into blow-molding machines, can be shaped into plastic bottles of various shapes, from water bottles to mayonnaise jars. The owner of the company manufactures the blow-molding machines as well, and he was interested in expanding the sales of his machines to the U.S.
“We did the factory tour and talked with our contact there about what he wanted to do,” recalls Locke. “He asked if we would help him identify forty prospective buyers in the U.S. who might be interested in purchasing his machines.”“We had some Russian speakers, some Lithuanian speakers, a few Spanish speakers, and lots of English speakers on our transnational consulting team (the students),” said Locke. The students divided into three groups. “About one third of them wrote a ten-page analysis of how the owner should think about the U.S. market. Another third of the students did a final PowerPoint presentation for him, to share our views. The final third of the group surprised the manufacturer by making some video clips for his website. He had some video showing the qualities of his machines out on his website, with some music playing behind it. I asked the students to write a voice over for that video and to record it in English, Russian, Lithuanian, and Spanish and then layer it on top of the video. One of our LCC students is a videographer, so we put him in that group, and he helped make it happen.
“So we gave the manufacturer four videos for use, one in each language. He had hoped for 40 prospects, but the students found him more than 100. He was thrilled! Since then, he has sent a representative to the U.S., and this summer he began working through the list of prospects, making sales calls.” Locke said.
The combination of classes, projects, and visits to many different businesses and historical sites made the trip an interesting one, said student Willy Pierce. “I was surprised with how quickly the trip went,” he said. “Our group kept busy between the assignments we had and the outings in each city that we visited. Finding a balance between working and making sure to experience new cultures was difficult at times and didn’t allow for much down time, but we were definitely never bored!”
“Our goal was for our students to know what it feels like to do international business,” said Locke. “You get there at 9:00 p.m. on Sunday night, and you have a meeting the next morning. That’s how international business works. Our students worked hard for a client who wasn’t just playing business; he wants to invest in this idea. They had to struggle with feeling jet lagged and still perform at a high level; they had to get along with their European teammates and understand their accents.”
“That’s the kind of experience we want for our students on a study abroad trip. Anyone can go see; we want them to go do.”
Looking back on the trip, student Sara Garcia said she would like to see every student have the chance to study in another country as a part of their education. “No one should have to live his or her life without experiencing another part of the world. We focus so much on school now, only to focus on a career later, then put off traveling until retirement. Why, when you can learn so much more, see more of the world, AND not get behind in school? Saint Augustine wrote, ‘The world is a book, and those who do not travel only read one page.’ I could not agree more.”