Growing up in Estonia, a tiny Northern European nation guided by young, innovative leaders, Simona Andreas was bred to believe that anything is possible. Her five-foot frame belies many larger-than-life aspirations, but one in particular: to become a leader in her country.
Yet, much like Estonia’s difficult history, behind Andreas’ ambition lies a series of struggles.
A place to lead
I meet Andreas in a quiet conference room used by Wheaton College student government— a natural habitat for Andreas, who chats breezily across the table. The executive vice president of global engagement, she scampers in and out of these rooms throughout the week to strategize better ways to provide resources for international students. As she pursues her ultimate dream of becoming a politician and pastor, this leadership role is “doing what I’m hoping to do on a larger scale,” she says, when she returns her hometown of Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city.
It’s hard to imagine that the confident, animated Andreas — a self-described extravert who loves public speaking — was once a painfully shy four-year-old. “I would cry when people just looked or talked to me!” she says. Her mother even had to join the staff of Andreas’ preschool just to cajole her into making the trip to school each morning.
Fifteen years later, Andreas set off for school virtually halfway across the world — but this time, excitement had replaced her childhood fear.
Fulfilling her dream to come to the United States, her move to the American Midwest brought some cultural challenges. At times, she found herself misunderstood since Americans tend to be more open and friendly, while Estonians are “focused and efficient.” Soon after Andreas arrived, a rumor circulated that she was an Estonian princess, she laughingly recalls, as if she were “exotic.”
While it’s true that Andreas is the first student from Estonia to attend the college, her nationality and identity are more complicated than simply being “Estonian.”
Dealing with division
The child of an Estonian mother and Russian father, Andreas struggles with inner conflict tangled up in the acute national and ethnic tensions of her homeland. “I’ve always been deeply divided, just within myself because I do have these two nationalities and I’m proud of both of them,” she says. Estonians resent Russia — the country of 1.3 million people gained its freedom from the Soviet Union just 25 years ago — and Russians reflect the similar hostility towards Estonians. “My parents don’t talk about history or politics,” she explains, “because my mom says that if they do, they’ll get divorced.”
Andreas’ strenuous circumstances forced her to arbitrate on behalf of both sides. “When I came from school I had to defend Estonia from my dad, and then when I went to school I had to defend Russia,” she recalls.
While frequent disagreements with friends and family members sharpened Andreas’ ability to offer arguments for multiple perspectives, she also struggled with letting her emotional nature take over. Her mother was an alcoholic until Andreas was about twelve, so “emotions were on the surface all the time.” While Andreas says that although she believes she was born with an emotional intensity, “a lot of the things my parents said and did kind of peeled it back.”
And even though she no longer lives in Estonia, challenges persist. “To this day, whenever it’s Estonian independence day I just cry the whole day because of…this inner conflict.”
Those hardships shaped Andreas’ passion for political and pastoral leadership. “It tapped into the intensity of emotions that I feel…this ‘fight’ in me of fighting for the right thing, or for tolerance and love,” she says reflectively. “I’m very against hateful rhetoric because I’ve heard it my whole life.”
It’s this perspective that inspires her ambition: to foster reconciliation on both sides of the political conflict. “Estonians haven’t moved on and Russia is nowhere near apologizing for history,” she explains, adding that “both of those things I think need to happen for us to move on.” The message is not commonplace in Estonia; instead, politicians often rely on evoking common enemies to gain power and popularity.
As Andreas speaks about Estonia, it becomes clear that the country is not simply the backdrop for her childhood, but a place of belonging that continually calls her back. “My heart still hurts…from being away,” she says.
“The dream enabler”
One of the primary frustrations Andreas has faced in America challenged her pursuit of leadership. In Estonia, dreams were currency; here, she found hers derided and disregarded.
When a professor asked Andreas what she wanted to become, she responded with “a leader.” He replied, “You’re 19 and you’re a woman,” she remembers, her hazel eyes flashing indignantly. She explains that “there are more limitations here and you follow a certain structure.” America’s system — burdened with ceilings and ladders — makes her feel like a “lion in a cage.”
It’s a sharp contrast to the technologically-saturated culture of Estonia, which values fresh ideas and the young innovators behind them. “I could start an online company in Estonia from here in two minutes,” she says with pride. “We have the most start-ups per capita.” Her ginger ponytail bobs fervently, matching the force behind her words. “For us, the mentality is that no matter how old or young you are, you can be a leader.” The country’s political structure reflects this mentality; the prime minister is 35, and the president only 40.
“For us, the mentality is that no matter how old or young you are, you can be a leader.”
Today as a student leader, Andreas strives to make an impact “through relationships.” Oftentimes she brings up examples of people she knows who are young and leading as a way to inspire her peers to pursue their dreams. She calls herself “the dream enabler” because she loves “showing people that hey, you can do anything and there are no limits. Just go for it.”
Her own dream: to work with the government, church and people of Estonia to bring about change for a predominately non-religious, historically oppressed people.
She eagerly fidgets in her seat. “I love it here, but there’s something so huge out there waiting…and I want to get to that good part already.”
Photos courtesy of Simona Andreas.