Telling stories that “deserve to be heard.”

Following their experience in Lithuania, four students embarked on an in-depth research project that they submitted to the National History Day (NHD) competition and win 1st place in WA state. 

by Alie McDougall

This whole process has been amazing. It was months upon months of learning moments. Now, more than ever, we are connected to our topic and the people of Lithuania. We have seen through our research the challenges and turmoil brought upon the country and how the steadfastness of each and every citizen allowed them to overcome. This project started last June when we had the opportunity to travel to Lithuania for a Democracy Camp sponsored by the US Embassy. We had just arrived in Lithuania when we found out the topic for the 2019 National History Day competition, it happened to be Triumph and Tragedy… an absolute perfect fit for our topic that was then, unbeknownst to us. Looking back, I can remember one conversation that we had in a dark restaurant on our second day in the beautiful city of Vilnius. We had just met the Jokubas Daunoras and his mother. Jokubas was to be a CWA student for the upcoming school year. At lunch, Ms. Daunoras was in the midst of explaining to us bits and pieces of Lithuania’s extensive history when Ms. Vogel mentioned the possibility of an NHD project to us. We talked about it excitedly but did not really have a chance to think about it a whole lot as we were caught up in the excitement of being in such a beautiful country. We spent the rest of our trip making incredible connections, getting to know all the amazing students at the camp and continuing to be inspired by everything we learned about Lithuania.

Upon our return to CWA, we began to discuss more and more about doing the project. We wanted to bring awareness to Lithuania’s story that we knew deserved to be heard. That was around the time we realized how perfect our vision for the project fit with the theme of this year’s competition, Triumph and Tragedy. After having a little bit of time to transition into high school, in October we were able to dive into our work. We decided to do a website not only in hopes of reaching a wider audience but also to create a balanced relationship between powerful quotes, analysis, and visual aspects that would appeal to all people. The research process was challenging, exciting, and taxing. It called for many late nights of reading, taking notes, annotating sources, etc. What kept us so motivated along the way were all the interviews we were able to conduct. The strong connections we had made in Lithuania were paramount in this part of our research. We reached out to Lithuanian teachers, employees of the US Embassy in Vilnius, photographers, authors, friends and more. The director of the Democracy Camp, Dr. Egle Petroniene, was able to provide us with the contact information of many of these people. She fully supported our project and did everything she could to help us along the way. Each of the stories we uncovered in our interviews gave us more reason to continue working on this project. What they and their families endured during the Soviet Occupation was both shocking and heartbreaking for us to hear. During this time we also came in contact with Ruta Sepetys, a controversial Lithuanian author. Her novels Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea really helped us understand and live through the eyes of someone who endured all the tragedies that were the subject of our research. But after talking with many of the Lithuanian students we met at the camp, we learned that many Lithuanians do not think Sepetys’s books accurately depict the lives of Lithuanians under the Soviet Regime. These perspectives were eye-opening and helped us further our research. 

We finally submitted our project to the regional competition in late March, five months after starting it from scratch. A month later we found out that we had placed second! A huge accomplishment for a team of four freshmen competing in the  9th-12th grade division of the history competition. We were pretty ecstatic going into the state competition that took place in May. There we had the opportunity to do a small presentation on our project and discuss our research project. A few days later we received word that we had finished in first place at the state level. This was a pretty overwhelming moment for all of us as we knew how much this would mean to our friends in Lithuania. The judges’ feedback came in immediately after. Their comments made us realize how much they appreciate the connection and passion we had for our project… 

“… this project meets and perhaps even exceeds the standards of excellence for a HIstory Day project. You should be extremely proud of the work you did”

“Amazing research! You really dove all the way into your topic! I found your entire website to be incredibly interesting and full of great information” 

“This was an incredibly impressive project. I have judged history day for many years and this is one of the best projects I have ever seen” 

We owe this project back to Charles Wright for providing us the opportunity to go on such an amazing trip that started it all and of course the incredible people we met and talked to along the way whose stories should continue to inspire people everyday. 

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