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Maimu Mölder: Forest University remains bridge between Estonia, diaspora

After settling back into the real world following an intensive week of Estonian lectures, discussion and culture, Maimu Mölder, director of the Canadian-Estonian community's popular annual Forest University (Metsaülikool, MÜ), took the time to answer ERR News' questions regarding the event, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year.

ERR News: Where did the idea behind the first MÜ come from? Who was involved, and what was their goal?

Maimu Mölder: To fill the void of Estonian-language university level education in the 1960s, "baby boomers" in North America created their own university-level education program. They chose [to host it at] Kotkajärve, a remote and expansive forested property owned by an Estonian Girl Guides and Boy Scouts organization in Muskoka, Canada, and called the week-long lecture series Metsaülikool, or Forest University.

The 60s was a time of rebellion and finding ones roots. MÜ actually had a controversial start — the youth of the day challenged the views of hardliners who believed maintaining ties with Estonians behind the Iron Curtain would give the Soviet Union a political tool to say that Estonians abroad accepted the Soviet regime. The organizers of MÜ had a different take, and wanted to establish cultural ties and learn about developments in culture, politics, sciences and other disciplines. It was important for the organizers that MÜ adhere to academic standards, provide information objectively and espouse democratic ideals.

Interest in attending the first MÜ was high and had to be restricted to 140 in the event's early years in order to keep the fledgling week-long gathering manageable. Age restrictions were also capped at 35 and participants had to commit to stay for the whole week to be accepted. It is worth noting that the event was run by volunteers who forfeited any subsidy for running it, which is the practice even today.

In the 50 years since, has this goal changed?

MM: Though we no longer have age restrictions at MÜ, the goal is the same — to keep Estonians abroad informed about Estonian culture, politics, the sciences, environmental issues, and topical aspects of the day. The underlying goal of bringing Estonians together in a global network has continued throughout the years and has been made easier with continuing advances in technology.

Who was the target group of participants then? What about now?

MM: The target group of participants was basically university-age young Estonians. Today, MÜ is open to all who are interested, regardless of age, which creates a wonderful dynamic with experienced individuals offering their expertise to those who are younger.

We also provide younger participants opportunities to shine by leading activities and workshops. We invite university-aged youth to present mini-lectures to the group, which has been highly successful. This not only requires young lecturers to seek out Estonian-language vocabulary in their chosen field, but allows them to develop useful presentation skills.

MÜ continues to attract roughly 100 people each summer. We encourage people to stay the week — this helps to develop a sense of camaraderie, making the experience more impactful.

How is each year's central theme decided?

MM: We begin planning for the next summer on the last day of MÜ. At the MÜ Foorum, everyone is invited to offer their views regarding successes and where improvements are needed, and of course, ideas for next year's theme and potential lecturers. This brainstorming session often produces the best new ideas, and gives the organizers a starting point for their monthly meetings throughout the year.

This year's main theme focused on indigenous peoples. Linguist Indrek Park talked about language development and his work with indigenous populations in North Dakota. Rosemarie Lindau provided us with a comparison of Estonian runic songs and North American indigenous songs — the examples proved surprisingly similar. We screened Liivo Niglas' film "Yuri Vella's World," about Forest Nenets Yuri Vella living in Western Siberia, and Linda Norheim Brookes outlined programs for indigenous Métis people in Canada.

Other lecture topics included Estonian cybersecurity developments (Agu Ets), Estonian population-related issues (Eerik-Niiles Kross), an overview of quality Estonian films from the Soviet era (Riho Västrik), the importance of the writers of the Siuru literary movement (Sirje Kiin), and several other engaging subjects ranging from the impact of Christianity on Estonian language development to DNA and molecular biology.

How important is involving the Estonian homeland itself, e.g. through topics, guest speakers, participants? When did you begin involving people directly from Estonia?

MM: MÜ strives to have speakers equally from Estonia and abroad in order to further the exchange of knowledge and provide everyone the opportunity to grow intellectually while augmenting participants' Estonian-language skills.

1989 was the year we first had an unprecedented number of participants from Estonia: lecturers included René Eespere, Tunne Kelam, Mikk Mikiver, Tiit Pruuli and Arno Susi, as well as at least ten general attendees from Estonia.

In addition to theme-related topics, what other activities do you offer at MÜ?

MM: In addition to lectures, MÜ has a wide range of workshops that may include runic singing, poetry readings, fine art and handcrafts, wine tasting, mediation, yoga, canoeing, forest survival skills, paddle-boarding and many other activities. We also have film nights, nature walks, campfire sing-alongs and a late evening visit to our hiis, or sacred grove. For a number of years, we have been bringing young folk dance instructors to teach us dances that we perform for the group during our final soiree. We also offer activities for children while parents take part in lectures and workshops.

Metsaülikool is a meeting place for many purposes. One nickname for MÜ is kosjakontor, or "dating service," since a good number of participants have met their life partners here.

Is the Canadian MÜ involved with the Metsaülikool organized in Estonia every year?

MM: MÜ has actually taken place in various locations and countries, including Sweden, the U.S., and Australia. When Estonia regained its independence, it only seemed natural that MÜ would connect with the homeland.

While Estonian Swedes held their MÜ-inspired metroo in Estonia in the 1990s, the first MÜ in Estonia took place in Heimtali in 2004. Renowned textile artist Anu Raud had been a hit at MÜ the previous year and offered her property for MÜ the following year.

The current Kääriku Metsaülikool program, which Mare Taagepera is credited with founding, is organized independently and has a similar but alternate goal — to be a think tank for continuing to build a better Estonia. The respective organizing committees keep in touch and inform each other of their activities. Where possible, we work together on joint projects.

How has MÜ addressed changes in the diaspora Estonian demographic?

MM: The more acute challenge we face today is the decreasing number of Estonians born abroad who speak Estonian. MÜ continues to be an Estonian language immersion program, which we will offer as long as possible.

While we offer Estonian language instruction to a limited number of non-speakers who accompany participants to MÜ, we have kept these numbers low so as not to disrupt the immersion experience. We are currently working on developing a two-day youth program for next year that will focus on developing language skills in a fun and interactive way geared to youth interests, with the program to be run by youth organizers.

Is MÜ involved in other events throughout the year, e.g. in Toronto?

MM: Metsaülikool maintains a presence at various events, including at the Suvihari summer festival held at Seedrioru Estonian Summer Camp near Guelph, Canada, and the Estonian Christmas Open House in Toronto. Past MÜ attendees and supporters have also represented us in places further away, including New York. It is also important for us to maintain ties with the Estonian Supplementary Schools in Toronto, and for years we have been offering a scholarship for graduating youth to attend MÜ in future years.

MÜ likewise takes advantage of the Song Festival to organize reunions in Estonia, and organizers have participated in Compatriots' Programme conferences held in Estonia.

This year, our 50th anniversary celebrations have included an exhibition in Toronto, which we are excited to announce will be touring Estonia in 2018 [the country's centennial], largely thanks to the invaluable collaboration with and support of Estonia's Ministry of Culture.

What is MÜ's vision for its future?

MM: MÜ's role will continue to be a bridge between those who live in Estonia and abroad. The issues that affect Estonia are very much the concern of Estonians living elsewhere in the world. If MÜ can play even a small role in affecting change for the better by fostering knowledge and being a catalyst for partnerships that develop at Metsaülikool, then we have made the world a better place.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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