VMU Helped American Student Discover Her Calling
“Lithuania will always feel like a second home to me”, – says Gabrielle Kempton, an American who earned her MA in Social Work after two years of studies at VMU. Over that time she not only fell in love with Lithuania and gained useful intercultural experience, but also discovered the field she cares about: fighting human trafficking, which remains a serious problem on both sides of the pond.
While studying Social Work at VMU, you wrote your final MA thesis on the comparison of the way human trafficking is dealt with in the U.S. and Lithuania. What did you learn and what conclusions did you come up with?
One of the most interesting things I learned was how different trafficking looked in both countries. Oftentimes Lithuanian women would be trafficked when they went to different countries in order to look for employment opportunities. While this type of entrapment also happens in the U.S. (usually with foreign women coming into the country), what is more typical with American women is they become trafficking victims through abusive relationships.
Another interesting difference was in collaboration between organizations working with trafficking victims. In the U.S. most of the organizations I interviewed worked together with each other to fulfill the needs of their clients. Each organization specialized in a specific area, one might provide housing, one might provide legal support, another might specialize in advocacy. The organizations I interviewed in Lithuania mainly operated separately. They learned the needs of their clients, and then came up with ways to serve that need within their own organization.
You’ve said you’ve become interested in fighting human trafficking after your studies in Lithuania. Is this related to your internship at Lietuvos Caritas, a social service and charity organization? What was it like?
I loved every minute of my internship with Lietuvos Caritas. They provided me with such a great experience of working with a population I had limited experience with before. I learned a lot from my mentors at Caritas, and they provided me a lot of opportunities for hands on projects and experiences. They taught me about the current resources and actions in place to help victims of trafficking.
Was the transition from working on similar issues in Lithuania to the U. S. jarring?
I wouldn’t say so. The way trafficking “looked” so to speak in both countries was different, however the victims’ needs, whether they were Lithuanian or American, were very similar. The services provided to the victims were also very similar, even though the delivery of these services did vary between both countries.
In the U.S., you’ve worked for Preble Street, a social services organization fighting homelessness, mental illness, hunger and poverty. What were your duties there?
I worked with homeless teenagers. I worked on getting their basic needs met, warm clothing for the winter, connecting them with any medical attention they need, helping clients to find housing and jobs, crisis intervention, completing school, getting into college, as well as providing group sessions that focused on topics relevant to their lives. We also had a “drop-in” space – a place for our clients to come into to feel safe, and get off the streets during the day.
Why did you decide to study here, in Lithuania?
I first came to Lithuania during a study abroad experience of my bachelor degree studies. The first city I lived in was Klaipėda. One of my professors suggested Lithuania as a great opportunity to experience something new. I came to Kaunas a year after I finished my studies in Klaipėda. I had fallen in love with Lithuania and wanted the opportunity to live in the country again. A friend of mine told me about the master’s program of social work at VMU, and I jumped at the chance to live in Lithuania once more.
How did you imagine Lithuania before coming here? What was your first impression once you did come?
I imagined Lithuania as many different things. I knew a little bit about the country’s history and the geographical location, but I didn’t know much about the heart of the country – the culture. I imagined Lithuania to look architecturally similar to western Europe, the weather to be cold, and the skies gray. I imagined the people to be dressed fashionably, always wearing scarves and bright colors.
When I first came to Lithuania I was living in Klaipėda, and I immediately noticed the difference between my own and Lithuanian culture when it comes to smiling at strangers. Americans are quick to smile at people we don’t know – in passing on the streets, in grocery stores, coffee shops – a smile is like a greeting in our culture. I noticed Lithuanians did not do this as often.
My first impression of Kaunas was different, because I had already been exposed to Lithuania. One of the first things I thought was that the people there were more friendly than in Klaipėda! As soon as I came to Kaunas it was like home, there was a certain energy to the city that I loved. Even though I had never lived there before, it felt familiar, it felt like I belonged there.
How would you describe Lithuanians? Did you adapt to their lifestyle and traditions quickly?
I would describe Lithuanians as resilient, fierce, hopeful, and incredibly kind to their friends. I have yet to come across a challenge they have not been able to tackle. I think I did adapt to the Lithuanian lifestyle rather quickly, though there were a few social norms that took a little while for me to adapt to. I really enjoyed the cultural immersion.
One tradition that really made an impression on me was the All Saint’s Day. I remember the first time I saw the candles lining Laisves Aleja and the somber, quiet atmosphere as people walked down the path. I had never been a part of something quite like that.
What are you going to do in the future? Is Lithuania included in your plans?
Ideally, I would like to be involved in the counseling field. I would like to be a therapist helping individuals process their personal struggles. I would love to continue to work within the field of trafficking, but I’m also excited about the potential for exploring new populations I haven’t worked with yet. Truthfully, I haven’t quite figured out exactly what my future is going to be yet! I would love to return to Kaunas one day. Living in Lithuania was a life changing event. It will always feel like a second home to me, and it will always have a place close to my heart.
Overall, studying in a completely different culture than my own has broadened my understanding of social problems and their potential solutions. I now bring a very unique perspective to my employers, which makes me stand out. I can understand a much wider base of individuals on a more personal level because I’ve been in situations where I was studying and living with people from 20 other different cultures. I’ve learned and grown with individuals from these other cultures and my world view will be forever changed because of it.
How would you describe VMU? Is this university friendly enough to foreign students?
I loved every minute of my time at VMU. Everyone I interacted with at the university was so nice, and worked hard to make sure I was getting what I needed out of my studies. From my experiences I can confidently say they are friendly to foreign students. My professors, the Social Work program staff, and the International Office staff made me feel like I belonged at this university. I was the only foreigner in my particular degree program, but I never felt isolated. I made some really great relationships at VMU. I’m really glad I decided to study there.
The International Office provided me with a vast amount of information about what to expect when arriving in Lithuania. They helped me apply for the appropriate visas and residence permits I needed. They hosted many events to make it easy to get to know the other incoming students. The Social Work Department worked hard to provide materials to me in English to make sure I would be able to successfully navigate my classes. Anytime I had questions about the city, classes, transportation, or just about anything else, there was always someone willing to help me out.