Wagoner, Elaina

Wagoner on the Baltic Sea

Elaina Wagoner
Major: International Relations and Political Science; Minor: French and Constitutional Studies
  • International Relations
  • Political Science

Class of: 2022

Carroll College student Elaina Wagoner is studying abroad in Estonia in the spring of 2021. She shares about her time there...

Overall, I've found the most interesting thing in adjusting to Estonia is adjusting to the Estonian disposition. The first and most obvious thing to me was how when I smiled at people on the street or gave them a nod out of habit, they would look at me really strangely (sort of a "What is wrong with you?" or "Do I know you?").  I'm so used to the US, or even specifically Montana, where if you pass someone, it's impolite to not smile or recognize their presence, and it's not uncommon to have conversations with people you've never met. I've learned Estonians are very to the point with people they don't know. It's all business. They don't see a point in wasting energy/time on niceties and they prefer such actions to feel earned and genuine. This isn't to say that they aren't kind to strangers, as I have interacted with several Estonians who have been politely willing to help with small things, but they are wary of strangers and prefer not to interact unless there is a need to do so. It made me feel a bit alienated at first, but I have grown to appreciate the sort of respect for others it's meant to embody.

Apparently, cheddar is not popular over here (it's more of a British Isles thing?). I only ever find one kind at a larger store and they're sold in itsy bitsy packages. On a similar note, the comparison of American portions to European portions of things continually makes me chuckle. 

I live in a dorm that primarily houses all of the University of Tartu's international students, so my roommates are French and Italian (though the French one has since had to leave for family matters), and I've met acquaintances from all sorts of places within Europe and several without. I've been able to cook my patented large fluffy American pancakes for a few of our guests before the restrictions really hit in Estonia. I think everyone sharing food from their culture is one of my favorite things here. I think I've had Italian, Indian, and Czech dishes most often. I hope to make hamburgers for people before the end of the semester.

I haven't met any other Americans here (in person), though there are three I've identified in my online classes. Whenever I tell someone I'm American, everyone I meet is surprised that I'm here. Their first and second following questions are almost always "Which part of the U.S. are you from?" and "Why did you come here?", which makes for some fun conversation. 

Every exchange student is proficient in English (due to the classes being in English), but I have only met one other native English speaker, from the UK. As such, I've become very aware of many aspects of language as I watch people from all over communicate in my mother tongue, and as I do my best to pick up on passing French, Russian, and Estonian. I'm also learning a lot about culture and cultural identity through a variety of opportunities and observations. (This is a whole subject I could write about, but such is the simple summary.)

More than interactions though, I love to get out and about. My three favorite/most interesting experiences outside have been sledding (Feb 19), an hour and a half night hike to a frozen lake for the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights [the lights were, of course, unavailable and I, unfortunately, don't have any pictures due to how dark it was] (March 19), and a trip to Viljandi and Parnu which included a visit to castle ruins, a small nature walk and some time at the Baltic Sea [I'm the one in the white coat] (March 21). My favorite was definitely standing on the Baltic Sea and the car ride there. I cherish every opportunity to be able to experience the countryside and the more majestic/beautiful/meaningful aspects of being in Estonia.

Also, I won a hoodie from the university in the first week from winning a Kahoot on knowledge of Estonia. :)

Baltic Sea with Group
Taking Photo

Overall, I've done my best to make the most of the situation. Unfortunately, the COVID situation here has only worsened since I've arrived. Although I was able to enjoy a few things before, such as an in-person Estonian culture course when there were lighten restrictions, the country has been on lockdown since March 11. The lockdown is supposed to lift in mid-April, but it sounds like they will push it back to early May. I found out recently that the remainder of my classes will be online for the semester unless otherwise necessary, which was honestly rather disheartening to hear. I don't think I've ever felt so boxed in before, pacing my small grey room. I was trying to be more [safely] social (as was one of my goals) but even this has somehow become a much more complicated field to navigate than before. These, among other complications, have at times made me envious of people back home and made me question what I'm doing, if it's worth it all, etc.

However, I am thankful for the fact that I get the chance to experience Estonia as it never has been and (hopefully) never will be again. What I've been going through is rather unconventional, but people rarely are built up by, grow through, or tell stories about particularly conventional times. In an odd way, I enjoy its unique aspect.

I chose to study abroad this particular semester because I wanted to know, for my career path, that I could live abroad on my own and even flourish. Although I may not quite have gotten to flourishing, I would say that if I do even well enough living and studying in Estonia right now, where I hardly speak the language, have few close connections, in the middle of their largest wave of a pandemic, I'll give myself the stamp of approval moving forward.

Viljandi Castle

Obviously, things could be much worse and I never intend to sound ungrateful for this opportunity. I adore museums, libraries, and cultural centers, but I've redirected myself to more outdoors-oriented activities as they'll all become closed, which Estonia has nothing if not outdoors (not as diverse and grandiose as Montana's, but I'm likely biased). I still get some sense of history/culture observing the architecture and stores in different areas of Tartu. Going to grocery stores further and further away in search of a Walmart replacement has also become an occasional entertaining weekend hobby. I feel that part of doing study abroad is to show your adaptability, and if this situation doesn't add that to my resume, I'm not quite sure what will.

I admit it's definitely nowhere near the study abroad that I envisioned for so many years, but I believe in the idea that things happen the way they do for a reason. So, I look forward to discovering/learning more about these reasons.