NWU Student Achieves Goal of Meeting Estonian President

When NWU student Collin Shepherd arrived in Estonia early this year, he set a lofty goal.

“I wanted to meet the president of Estonia,” said the junior communication major. “Estonia is a small country. How difficult could it be to meet the president?”

Shepherd’s goal to meet Estonia’s president was not in his original college plans. In fact, studying abroad wasn’t either until a group of friends hung out in a residence hall room one evening and talked about travel. By the end of the night, all four students agreed they would study abroad that year.

Shepherd visited Nebraska Wesleyan’s International Education Office and began exploring opportunities. He quickly pointed to the University of Tartu in Estonia, a new sister school to NWU. Shepherd said he chose the country based on the ease of paperwork and preparation to study there.

“But I did have to look at a map,” he said, laughing. “I wasn’t sure where I was going.”

Estonia is an eastern European country located between Latvia and Russia. It is bordered by the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Finland. Nebraska Wesleyan entered an exchange program agreement with the University of Tartu in Estonia in 2008. Twelve NWU students have studied there through the new partnership. Ten Estonian students have since studied at NWU.

From February to May, Shepherd studied philosophy, archeology, history of religion, Estonian culture and the Estonian language. He took advantage of university-led trips to Russia and Sweden. On his own time, he traveled to Rome and later backpacked to London.

“It helped me grow up,” Shepherd said of his experience. “It gives you an experience that you can’t get in Lincoln, Nebraska.

“Not only do you learn to be independent but you have to learn how to get around in a foreign country, live on your own, make good choices, and get along with people from all over the world,” he continued. “You can’t learn that in a text book.”

As his days in Estonia dwindled down, Shepherd felt he accomplished most of his goals: learning a new language, making new international friends, and visiting historical places. But he had yet to meet Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Illves.

He tried emailing the government. He contacted a fellow Estonian student who was a shirt-tail relation to the president. Nothing worked and it was time to travel home.

But a bizarre sequence of events happened back in his hometown of North Platte. Shepherd’s mother attended a graduation party and explained to a friend that her son was studying abroad in Estonia. The friend wanted to know more; after all, the friend’s former college roommate used to be married to the Estonian president.

They soon contacted the college roommate who put Shepherd in touch with the president.

On June 3, just six days before leaving Estonia, Shepherd walked through the front doors of the president’s home and sat down for a personal visit. They discussed Shepherd’s interest in Estonia and his studies. The president — who attended college in the United States — gave advice on places to visit in Estonia.

“I was pretty nervous but excited,” Shepherd recalled. “I really didn’t think it was going to happen, but the experience showed me that if I set a big goal, I can achieve it.”

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NWU Student Collin Shepherd and the President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Illves