William & Mary students studying abroad in Vilnius, Lithuania, found themselves at the center of the geopolitical world for a few days in July.

In the midst of their studies in Lithuania’s biggest city, these dozen scholars had an up close and personal view of the NATO Summit held July 11-12, where world leaders such as U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke on behalf of democracy in the face of aggression by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The summit touched on topics that are crucial to students such as Yasha Barth ’23 and George Hage ’25, who are both exploring careers that could place them at the center of international security and development in years to come. Careers and democracy are among the pillars of William & Mary’s Vision 2026 strategic plan.

“It was incredible to be in the center of something that large in geopolitics, something that I haven’t had the opportunity to experience yet,” said Hage, who was studying Russian language at European Humanities University in Vilnius for two months as part of Project Global Officer, a program for ROTC cadets.

Hage is in his first year of Project GO, which is supported by a grant from the Department of Defense. The government and post-Soviet studies major plans to commission into the U.S. Army and seek a career in military intelligence.

Barth is on track to graduate in December with a degree in international relations and global studies with a concentration in Russian and post-Soviet studies. He plans to pursue a career in international development or for a non-profit NGO.

“I think it was the best time to be in Lithuania because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience with the NATO summit being there,” said Barth, who was among a group of students studying Russian language and history for five weeks as part of a faculty-led summer abroad program held through the Reves Center for International Studies.


It was fortuitous that the W&M students were in Vilnius at the same time the NATO Summit was held in Lithuania for the first time in history.

“It was definitely serendipity for our program to be in Vilnius at this historical moment,” said W&M Russian Studies Program Director Sasha Prokhorov, who was one of the faculty members who made the trip, along with Professor Maria Galmarini, who led the W&M program, Professor Elena Prokhorova, Assistant Director of the Studio for Teaching & Learning Mike Blum and Associate Director of International Travel & Security Nick Vasquez.

NATO sign in Lithuania
A NATO sign stands outside of the The Ministry of National Defence of Lithuania. (Photo by Yasha Barth ’23)

The students saw world leaders, including Biden, Zelenskyy and Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda speak in outdoor venues in the city. Some were able to get very close to the leaders, like Barth, who waited for hours with other students to receive access to a small courtyard at Vilnius University where Biden spoke.

Biden emphasized support for Ukraine from the United States and NATO.

“Biden was absolutely crystal clear that the U.S. and the NATO Alliance will continue to support Ukraine’s fight for democracy, and that was the most important thing for me,” Prokhorov said.

Barth said the president’s speech was of particular interest to him because it touched on the political and economic sphere as well as the United States’ dedication to promoting greater global interdependence and mentioned the World Bank, where Barth is currently interning.  

“We stood maybe 75 feet from President Biden when he gave his speech, and we had a great view,” Barth said. “Once we got in the courtyard, we were basically left speechless because we did not think we’d get to see the president at all and be that close to him.”

Hage said he waited six hours to see Biden speak. There were moments where he considered bailing on waiting in line for so long, but he was happy he stuck it out.

Hage said, “How many other opportunities are we going to get to see a U.S. president speak in another country on the topic of Eastern European security right in front of us?”

Ukraine President Zelenskyy speaks in Lithuania
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Lithuania President Gitanas Nausėda speak on the Lukiškės Square in central Vilnius on July 11. (Photo by Yasha Barth ’23)

Optimistic narrative

Hage was in the city square where Zelenskyy spoke. He was far away from the stage, but the Ukrainian leader walked right by him as he was being escorted to his motorcade by a substantial security team.

Zelenskyy spoke in front of the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, a historical site and archive dedicated to the occupations of Lithuania by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.  

“I think it was a very good location to choose for Zelenskyy’s speech, because what Zelenskyy and Ukraine is fighting for is, in my view at least, what Lithuania fought and won 30 years ago in 1991 when they won their independence from the Soviet Union. 

“I think it’s a very encouraging and optimistic narrative in the sense that obviously Ukrainians will persevere in this. They already won a moral victory, but I think it will follow up with victory on the battlefield.”

Zelenskyy’s speech at the NATO Summit allowed for some critical discussion by the students and faculty on the trip, Vasquez said.

“Obviously Zelenskyy came to try reinforce his position on NATO and the membership process of getting into NATO,” Vasquez said. “Having the students actually ask the question, ‘Why aren’t they in NATO? What do they have to do? What type of membership criteria is NATO looking for? Who are the players that are deciding such issues?’ These are all really great ways of learning how superpowers and organizations like NATO run.”

‘A paparazzi look’

William & Mary students were captivated by the preparations that took place for the world leaders to converge on Vilnius for the NATO Summit. Many of the city’s residents cleared out to make way for the arrivals of security and military personnel, as well as heads of state.

“You’re at the center of major global events, and that was a really cool experience,” Hage said. “We were all questioning what was happening, what precautions were being taken. We were very, very interested to say the least.”

With many residents away, the city became quieter than the William & Mary convoy was accustomed to. It led to some interesting observations.

“When the actual summit came to happen, the streets were pretty empty,” Vasquez said. “You were able to walk around and see foreign dignitaries just walking the streets. I saw Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walking in the middle of the street with his entourage at around 10 at night.

“There were only so many hotels there in Vilnius, so we were able to really capture and sort of do a paparazzi look at Biden and some of the other dignitaries that were in town. It was absolutely one of the most incredible times of my life, and I’ve been to about 45 countries, and Lithuania was right up there on the top of the list.”

W&M students and faculty members having dinner
W&M students and staff enjoy a dinner together in Klaipeda, Lithuania. (Photo by Yasha Barth ’23)

Extra purpose and meaning

Study abroad trips are ideal opportunities for students and professors to connect even more closely over a shared academic interest throughout a four- to eight-week period, but those bonds were different this time, said Prokhorov.

“I think a historical event like the NATO Summit provided an extra sense of purpose and meaning to what we were doing,” he said.

Barth said sharing this experience during such a critical geopolitical event involving the most powerful leaders in the world had a strong effect.

“The ability to form a more personal connection and relationship with all the members of the W&M faculty during the program is unparalleled,” Barth said. “By the end of the trip, I think it is safe to say that it felt as if we had become one giant family. Years down the road, I am sure that we will all be able to look back upon our experiences and have many interesting conversations with one another and relive those same memories.”

Being so close to Ukraine and Russia was particularly impactful to the students, who made excursions with faculty members to Lithuanian cities Kaunas, Nida and Palanga, as well as the Latvian city Riga. One trip a few weeks after the summit was especially memorable for Hage. He joined some students on a visit to the coastal city of Klaipėda, which is within view of the Russian province, Kaliningrad.

“To imagine that we were seeing the western world all in downtown Vilnius and then two weeks later looking into Russia, you could definitely tell it was a very potent message to send,” Hage said.

, Communications Specialist