WMU News

Faculty and students look at Latvia in spring study tour

Nov. 26, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- After 50 years of Soviet domination and only a decade of democracy, Latvia is coming into its own--politically, economically and culturally--as the country works to become a key player in trade, travel and technology.

Lessons that its educators, government officials and 2.3 million residents have learned along the way are part of "Passage to Latvia," a study tour of the small Baltic nation scheduled for May 23-June 4, 2002. Participation is open to faculty, staff, students and the community-at-large. The cost for the 13-day trip is $2,745 for WMU students not seeking class credit; $3,045 for WMU students seeking credit; and $3,370 for non-students. The first payment deadline is Feb. 15, 2002.

Led by faculty members in Western Michigan University's Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, the study tour will explore everything from Latvia's historical, educational and multicultural landscape to its apparel, architecture, food and families.

"This is not just another package tour," says Dr. Marlene Breu, assistant professor of family and consumer sciences. "We focus on the subject matters of our department while putting it all into the socio-political context of the country."

Bordered by Belarus, Estonia, Russia and Lithuania, Latvia sits on the Baltic Sea and is slightly larger than West Virginia. About half of its residents are the descendants of native Latvians. The next largest group, about 30 percent, is comprised of the offspring of Russians who took over Latvia in 1940. A year later, the Nazis invaded Latvia and occupied the little-known country until 1944 when the Russians wrested control. For more than 45 years, Latvia was ruled by the Soviets.

Full independence came to Latvia in 1991 and the country remains in transition, working to usher in democracy while reclaiming its national and cultural identity. Dr. Maija Petersons, a Latvian-American who has been a professor at WMU for more than 20 years, is on sabbatical in the Latvian capital of Riga this fall, witnessing the changes first-hand.

"The people and the government are still in transition," she said recently in an open letter to her peers at WMU. "The old systems have been in large part abandoned, but new procedures are not in place and are often in a state of flux."

Dr. Petersons, the lead facilitator of the spring study tour, is in Riga to help develop the nation's new food and nutrition policy. Despite the progress achieved since 1991, Latvia still struggles with serious issues in healthcare accessibility, social welfare, poverty, education and ethnic discrimination.

"Latvia offers us a clear example of how socio-political factors affect family life across the generations," says Dr. Karen Blaisure, associate professor of family and consumer sciences. "It's also an example of how you heal a society. The Russians there have raised their families, and now the tables are turned. Latvia has to examine the question of how does society make room for everyone and at the same time, redress past wrongs."

Ethnic issues are among the many which will be examined in the study tour's companion seminar series, "Latvia Traditions and Transitions." The series is a collaborative effort made possible by several WMU departments and programs, including Women's Studies, Foreign Languages and Literatures, Sociology, Family and Consumer Sciences, Geography, Music, History, Political Science, and the Diether H. Haenicke Institute for International Studies. The public is invited to attend the free seminars, which will feature visiting scholars. The talks are planned for Jan. 18-19, Feb. 1-2, and March 15-16.

For more information about the seminars, contact Patricia B. Viard, associate professor of family and consumer sciences, at (616) 387-3708 or <patricia.viard@wmich.edu>. Learn details about the tour through the Study Abroad Web site <www.wmich.edu/studyabroad>.

Applications are available in the WMU Study Abroad Office at B-200 Ellsworth Hall, and from the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Media contact: Dr. Marlene Breu, 616 387-3434 or Gail H. Towns, 616 387-8400, gail.towns@wmich.edu

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