Music alum connects with Latvian Blugolds overseas

| Emily Wermund

When Jacob Truby, a 2010 UW-Eau Claire music education alum, moved from the U.S. to Latvia in 2017 to teach at the International School of Riga, he thought the move to Europe was about as far from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, as one could get.

That is, until he met Latvian Laura Freija in a local Riga sports bar while watching a Green Bay Packers game. Noticing Freija’s Packers clothing, Truby soon learned she also had connections to Wisconsin. When she shared that she had studied abroad as a Latvian exchange student at UW-Eau Claire, Truby’s heart nearly stopped. The two quickly struck up a conversation about beloved music ensembles, memories of singing in the Holiday Concert, and how supportive the community was during their years on campus.

A Blugold coincidence

A few days after meeting Freija, Truby was in a rehearsal for Rigas projektu krois (Riga Project Choir), a Latvian professional ensemble he sings in. It was during that rehearsal that Truby’s conductor introduced him to Mara Rozenberga — a member of the choir and another Latvian who had attended UW-Eau Claire. Truby and Rozenberga spent the bus ride home from their rehearsal reminiscing about the beauty of Eau Claire, the kindness of the professors, and how much they missed their time as Blugolds. The uncanny nature of meeting both Freija and Rozenberga just days apart was almost unbelievable.

“Jake’s mentioning of the Singing Statesmen and The Joynt on Water Street brought back so many memories, and this crazy feeling that the world can sometimes feel ridiculously small,” Rozenberga said.

Cross-cultural collaboration

Rozenberga’s and Freija’s time on campus is not simply a coincidence, though. Their time studying abroad at UW-Eau Claire was made possible through the Dr. Aina Galejs Foundation — a scholarship program supporting Latvian students in the U.S. — and administered by Dr. Paulis Lazda, professor emeritus of history. The application and selection process are rigorous, with the award covering full tuition and basic living expenses for two semesters at UW-Eau Claire. Only two to three Latvians get the chance to study under this scholarship each year. Rozenberga wrote multiple essays in order to be considered and went through a series of interviews with Lazda before being selected.

The late Dr. Aina Galeja-Dravniece, who passed away in 2013, was born in Latvia, but was forced to flee her country during World War II. She started her medical training as a German refugee and got her doctor’s certificate in the U.S., working as a pathologist in Minnesota and North Dakota hospitals for nearly 50 years. In 1992 she established a scholarship for young Latvian students and connected with Drs. Paulis Lazda and Irene Lazda, professor emerita of foreign languages — also Latvian World War II refugees who had acquired excellent educations in the U.S. The scholarship is meant to broaden horizons of young Latvian students, but has a strict unwritten rule: Scholars must return home after their year at UW-Eau Claire to help build a better Latvia.

“I’ve been trying to do that for 12 years now, and I like to think I’d make Aina Galejs proud,” said Rozenberga, who attended UW-Eau Claire from 2005-06 and studied international relations. She now works as a radio journalist in Riga. 

Experiences of a lifetime

Although UW-Eau Claire might not be the largest university in the U.S. (or even Wisconsin), for Freija and Rozenberga, their study abroad experience opened a world of opportunities. Rozenberga remembers a variety of liberal arts courses, singing in the Symphonic Choir, and how the professors in those classes made an impact she carried with her long after her time at UW-Eau Claire. She spent her spring break whitewater rafting with seven other Blugolds in Tennessee and North Carolina, and though she was forced to spend a night in the woods after her group got lost, remembers it as “the most unforgettable trip of my life.”

Rozenberga also enjoyed her time as a member of the International Film Society, the all-female a cappella group Audacious, working for the university Usher Corps, and taking in as much as she could in her two short semesters.

For Freija, the magic of Eau Claire was also something she could have never anticipated experiencing. She was working on her second master’s degree at the University of Latvia when she came across information about the Dr. Aina Galejs Scholarship. Feeling like she wanted to learn more before pursuing doctoral studies, the chance to study at UW-Eau Claire seemed like the perfect opportunity to experience a different education system. While preparing for her interview, Freija researched the city of Eau Claire and quickly realized that the river, forests and seasons seemed similar to those of her Latvian hometown and campus. 

“My studies at UW-Eau Claire made me a better teacher and provided opportunities to get to know a new culture, to share my culture and try new things as part of the community," Freija said. “I will always be thankful to Aina Galejs and the Lazda family for giving me this life-changing opportunity.”

Freija also was enriched by numerous campus activities: working the security desk of Towers Hall, leading the Baltic Student Organization, taking piano classes on campus, and even shaking former President Bill Clinton’s hand when he campaigned in Eau Claire for the Democratic Party candidates in 2012. Freija is now a math teacher at the International School of Latvia, where she uses her UW-Eau Claire education to enhance her work in Latvia.

And of course, Freija’s time in Eau Claire turned her into a Green Bay Packers fan as well. She still watches Green Bay football games from Riga, even if it means staying up all night.

Tracing it back to campus

Truby, originally from Appleton, taught vocal music in Beloit after graduating from UW-Eau Claire. He then was accepted into a graduate program in choral conducting at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. During his time at Westminster, Truby was reminded of the numerous travel and performance opportunities the UW-Eau Claire music department provided him as an undergraduate. He began toying with the idea of living in Europe for a period of time after graduate school and credits UW-Eau Claire for sparking a curiosity in him to eventually live outside the U.S. 

“At UW-Eau Claire, a great effort was put into not only my academics and qualifications, but also into shaping my character and morals,” Truby said. “My time working and learning with the education faculty helped light the fire in my heart to become a passionate educator and public servant.”

Truby describes his time in Riga, Latvia as inspiring and educational, opening his mind to more worldly ideas. Meeting Freija and Rozenberga has not only made Riga seem more homey, it has been a reminder that their time spent as Blugolds extends far beyond the city limits of Eau Claire. The three now see each other often, exploring Latvia and catching Green Bay Packers games when possible.

“It has made the world seem a lot smaller,” Truby says of meeting Freija and Rozenberga. “I feel wonderfully close to home whenever I see them.”