St. Olaf News


Connecting with the president of Estonia


Estonian President Toomas Ilves speaks to St. Olaf students visiting the country as part of the Mare Balticum program.

As a group of St. Olaf College students traveled through the northern European nations bordering the Baltic Sea this Interim, they had the opportunity to learn about the technology infrastructure in Estonia.

Directly from that country’s president.

Estonian President Toomas Ilves spoke to St. Olaf students studying abroad on the college’s Mare Balticum program, focusing much of his lecture on explaining the country’s sophisticated national Internet system.

This spring he’ll speak to an even larger group of St. Olaf students when he visits campus to receive an honorary degree and deliver the charge to the graduating class at the commencement ceremony.

Ilves will receive the honorary degree in recognition of a relationship with St. Olaf that has spanned more than 15 years.

He first visited the college in 1997 when, while serving as the Estonian ambassador to the United States, he agreed to speak to St. Olaf students interested in the Mare Balticum program. The program, led by Professor of German Vern Rippley and Professor of Economics Steve Soderlind, travels through eight countries and includes two stops in Estonia.

Rippley remembers explaining to Ilves during that first meeting that the program follows the medieval tracks of the Hansa, an international sea trading league.

“Instinctively, Ilves reached into his pocket and produced an airline ticket for Lufthansa — which in German means ‘air Hansa’ — and a Visa card issued by the Hansa Bank in Estonia,” Rippley says. “He was showing us that the name lives vicariously all across the region to this day.”

Ilves went on to help line up a number of events in Estonia for St. Olaf students on the Mare Balticum program, including connections to the national university in Tartu. He assisted in arranging lectures and receptions at the State Department of Estonia, followed in 2011 by an official welcome and lecture to Mare Balticum students at the Kadriorg Palace Park in Tallinn.

Students who met with Ilves during this year’s Interim program heard firsthand about the technological reform he’s championed there, which has helped Estonia achieve a level of digital sophistication far beyond many other nations.

Technology, Ilves told USA Today recently, “has allowed ‘tiny little backward Estonia’ to overcome ‘a learned helplessness’ following 50 years of Soviet ‘un-development.'”

Ilves, who holds a baccalaureate degree from Columbia University and a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, is the fourth president of Estonia. He was first elected in 2006 and was re-elected to a second five-year term in 2011.