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Fulbright scholar and clinical professor Dawn Edmiston reflects on teaching at Tallinn University

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     Professor Dawn Edmiston, a clinical professor of marketing at William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business, was selected to be a Fulbright Scholar at Tallinn University in Estonia.  Courtesy photo
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Professor Dawn Edmiston, a clinical professor of marketing at William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business, was selected to be a Fulbright Scholar at Tallinn University in Estonia in 2019.

Her journey to the Baltic country was two years in the making, as she was initially selected to begin teaching and advising university students in 2020. As with many things, the global coronavirus pandemic forced her to postpone the Fulbright Scholar opportunity one year until international travel resumed and borders reopened.

“I am thankful to be here because I know this is where I need to be,” Edmiston said via Zoom from her new home office in Tallinn, the sound of bustling cobblestone streets below and the spire of St. Olaf’s church in the background. “Our mission at William & Mary is to create global citizens so in order to do that, it is important for both students and faculty to have experiences like the one I am going through now.

She explained that the pandemic has been very difficult in Estonia, but Tallinn University needed another marketing faculty member and she felt she had a duty to share her expertise.

“The universe didn’t give me an education to just hang degrees on the wall,” Edmiston said. “I have a responsibility to share my education with others.”

Her experience thus far sheds light on the juxtaposition between the old and new in Estonian society. Edmiston says she has yet to use her bus pass; she walks every day to class amongst buildings dating back as far as 1246. She is soaking in the differences between how people walk, talk, hold eye contact, and react to cultural conflicts in the grocery store in a society that is heavily influenced by its Scandinavian, Western European, and Russian neighbors.

The courses she is teaching to Estonian and international students from twelve different countries at Tallinn University focus on social media and the connected culture, which is a hot topic for a generation of youth who have grown up in a country that boasts the highest number of start-ups per capita among European countries and has positioned itself within the European Union as a digital, “borderless” nation.

“The whole experience is very real and is not something you can fully understand by just reading a textbook or listening to a guest lecturer visiting William & Mary’s campus,” she explained. “It’s making me more appreciative of what I’ve been given in the U.S. and making me more determined to champion these globalized experiences.”

The digital republic

Estonia has always led the EU when it comes to the early adoption of digital initiatives – it is the birthplace of Skype after all. Yet Edmiston’s awareness of Estonia’s technology-forward digital society wasn’t fully realized until she read Nathan Heller’s letter from Tallinn, “Estonia, The Digital Republic” which was published by The New Yorker magazine in December 2017.

In the piece, Heller explores how in the early 2010s, Estonia launched several initiatives to move citizens, their personal information, and societal practices to a virtual environment. The number of things Estonians can do virtually – ranging from voting in a presidential election to paying taxes to accessing personal medical information – surpasses the capabilities of many neighboring countries and those in the U.S.

Estonia took digitization a step further by launching an e-residency program in 2014 that allows logged-in foreigners to partake in certain Estonian services such as banking as if they were living in the country, which appeals to foreign investors and international start-ups looking to put down virtual roots.

“I reached out to Nathan Heller and told him his article changed my life,” said Edmiston. “Locally, Estonia has a small population of 1.3 million but they are leading the world and the international community is beginning to understand the value they bring. It’s a different way of living but one that is very powerful and connected.”

Edmiston’s fascination with the tiny Baltic nation grew and when the opportunity to apply for a Fulbright arose, she knew it was exactly where she needed to be.

“I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder to be perfectly honest with you,” she said. “Everything is digital and they use different learning platforms than we do at William & Mary. We are face-to-face and I am teaching in English, which is not the students’ primary language. But it is very important for them to have somebody who is an English-as-a-native-language speaker, because they want to improve their language skills as they look towards graduation and finding jobs in a connected society.”

A drive to inspire

Tallinn University offers a free three-year education to Estonians looking to pursue an undergraduate degree. They, like many universities across the globe, were adversely affected in many ways by the COVID-19 pandemic. So, while Edmiston didn’t technically arrive in the country until this past summer, the university reached out to her and asked if she would be willing to advise third-year students, or seniors, on their undergraduate theses. It was a request that Edmiston excitedly agreed to, despite being seven time zones away.

“It is a very intense process,” she explained. “I agreed to advise virtually last year. It was a challenge because while students are required to complete a thesis, they are not taught how to do market research. I’ve taught market research at William & Mary so having that background was invaluable because teaching them basic research principles was critical to their success.”

One of her advisees, Sandra Sander, was recently selected as the winner in the category of bachelor’s thesis on the subject of marketing by the Marketing Institute in Estonia. The judges declared that the research compared “superbly how Estonian and American politicians communicate on Facebook.”

Edmiston has been teaching for nearly two months at Tallinn University in the Baltic Film, Media and Arts School. She describes the students as “media-driven” and communication is a primary discipline across all areas of study. Her theory courses in social media and connected culture have been well-received by the students thus far, as has the fact that she is instructing in English.

“They recognize and acknowledge they need to have an understanding of global platforms and practices, and English is such a driving force in media,” she said.

Edmiston has drawn upon her many years in academia, teaching a diverse global audience at eight universities including William & Mary, to connect with her current students, but she’s found that her past professional experience is what piques most students’ interest.

“Even though I worked at Discovery Channel many years ago, students still ask about my experience working there,” she said. “It is something that immediately resonates with them because several have told me they learned English by watching the Discovery Channel and Discovery Channel Science, and the brand brings a smile to their faces.”

Once Edmiston completes her fall semester in Tallinn, she plans to return to William & Mary energized by the experience. She plans to encourage not just students, but her colleagues university-wide to pursue opportunities teaching, learning, and researching overseas as Fulbright Scholars.

“I am a huge advocate for the Fulbright program and similar programs available to students and faculty members,” she said. “I want to make sure that other individuals know these opportunities exist and ideally, motivate them to apply for these experiences based on what I’ve learned. I want to support our William & Mary students and faculty in our university’s quest to create more global citizens. I believe they are so needed in this world and there are no better people than those from the William & Mary community to make that happen.”

In the meantime, Edmiston hopes to keep teaching and connecting with her students at Tallinn University and inspire them to live lives of principled achievement upon graduation.

“I admire my students,” she said. “They are independent, focused, and globally-minded. But as in any society, just because it is digital, doesn’t make it perfect. I hope to bring motivation, diversity, and perspective. I also want to encourage their creativity.”

Edmiston explained that she was the first woman in her family to attend college, so she knows what it is like to face adversity and overcome it.

“We live in a world where individuals need hope and a belief they can make a difference,” she said. “While many of these students don’t necessarily know what they will do with their education, they know they need it. I want to expose them to the different places and opportunities they can contribute using their education whether it be a tech start-up or improving services in higher education, healthcare, government, the financial sector or other areas important to moving Estonia forward.”