Unless you’re new this year, you probably remember the iconic, ever-friendly Vilma. If this is your first year at Gordon, consider this an introduction to the former queen of Lane, Vilma Giniotas. Known for her congenial spirit and constant interest in students, many upperclassmen have expressed disappointment at not seeing her at the cash register this year.
Sometime during last fall semester, I realized that I hadn’t seen her at all. This past month, curiosity got the better of me, and I started asking around. I reached out, and she agreed to sit down and share her story with me. On a chilly Friday morning in February, we clung to our cups of coffee in the Bistro, and I listened to her story.
As I listened to her share her story I couldn’t help but be amazed. At every turn in her life, coincidence, or perhaps providence, has shaped her destiny. Her experience as an immigrant provides a gripping backdrop to a narrative rich with meaning. As her ability to excel in the face of every challenge became apparent, she explained that perspective is key. “You have to change your mindset; Tell yourself it isn’t because I have to, it’s because I want to.”
Having grown up in Lithuania under the Soviet occupation, Giniotas never had the opportunity to travel or experience anything beyond her hometown. Raised in a single parent home, she saw her mother’s determination carry her family forward. But it was her grandmother, a devout Roman Catholic, who instructed her on their religion. 80% of Lithuanians are Catholic; even in the face of secular authoritarian rule from Moscow, the religion of Christ carried on.
Studying economics at the most prestigious Baltic college, Vilnius University, Giniotas excelled as a student. Her love for learning was fueled during these years; following graduation, her work did not ignite the same excitement within her. Moving from work as a store manager to a hotel manager and on to accounting, she shared of the boring and monotonous nature of these positions.
Little changed in her life until November of 1991 when the Berlin Wall fell. With the conclusion of the Cold War, she told of her excitement over her new freedom. Never before had she been allowed to travel outside of Lithuania. Acquiring her traveler’s visa, she planned a trip to the United States; she was to travel as a chaperone for her friend’s children.
As she landed in Boston’s Logan Airport, she met a Lithuanian-American man met who aided her and the kids as they sought to navigate the bustling city. That helpful man from the airport is now her husband. When I asked her how it happened, she simply responded, “He liked me, I liked him and so it went from there.”
Today, they have two boys, ages 12 and 15. Her husband runs his own construction management company. When I asked her about what she is doing now, excitement lit up her face. In May of this year, Giniotas will graduate from Gordon College with her Master’s in Leadership, with a focus on education. Right now, she is working on her capstone research paper. During our conversation, it was clear that learning is very important to her.
When Gordon first advertised their Master’s in Leadership to college staff, Giniotas was both intrigued and a bit intimidated by the thought of studying in English, her third language. Not thinking much of it, she continued her work as a cashier in Lane.
Having become acquainted with Jennifer Jukanovich while working below Student Life, Giniotas decided to meet with chapel staff to discuss other ways in which she could minister to students. During the 2016-2017 academic year, the chapel staff asked her if she would like to go on Gordon’s mission trip to West Virginia.
“Without evening asking my family, I said, ‘Of course!’” After an incredible experience there, she continued asking God for direction. When the College advertised the Masters in Leadership program again, she knew that she had to enroll.
She confidently dove into her new adventure. “Studying in a different language. Well that’s kind of brave; let’s do it.” While she has learned a lot through her classes, it became apparent that the experiences of her life have provided the biggest lessons of all.
Her passion for connecting with students and giving them joy helped her to understand the power of perspective. She talked about her mornings in Lane, “Seeing the students come for breakfast, some were so fresh and energized. Some would drag their legs and I like to encourage them to pour a little fuel on their fire and wake them up.”
Her experience as an immigrant further served her as a tool. She was able to reach out to international students who were overwhelmed by English and the culture of living on campus in the States. By telling of her childhood in Lithuania and her immigration to the United States, she was able to connect with many students.
Gordon is not the only place where she is able to shine as a light in her community. Eight years ago, the principal of a Lithuanian language school in Boston reached out to her and asked her if she would be interested in teaching at their heritage school. Out of a love for her homeland and a love for education, she agreed to work for them. Pretty soon, her kids had no choice but to attend the school too.
I finished our time together by asking her what she would like to share with the college community. Without hesitation, she explained the three most important lessons for every student to remember.
First, never stop learning. In a poetic way, she went on to explain herself. “Never and I mean never. If you think that you are gonna graduate and that this is the end, that wouldn’t be right! You have a whole life given to you. You have to use it to learn. There are so many interesting things we have to learn. Then, we can share that knowledge with others.”
Furthermore, you must find your passion in life. Paraphrasing Confucius, she shared that finding a job that really makes you happy is important. Doing that will give you happiness, along with everyone around you.
Her last piece of advice may seem a little odd to presumptive Americans. Drawing on her experience as an immigrant, she believes in the importance of learning languages. She said, “The language is the key to the world. You will open so many doors. You will learn the culture. It is good for you and your brain and your worldview. It is good for everybody.”
Vilma has a couple of jobs, two teenage boys, and is enrolled in a graduate program. Her ability to persevere in the face of overwhelming responsibility ought to serve as an example to Gordon students. “Your only job is to be here and study,” She says. Gordon’s undergraduate students ought to enjoy that experience and focus on their education.
People like Giniotas give energy and life to this college. They contextualize our education and show us all that we can be. there is a right way to live and taking the time to understand what that means is so important to succeeding in life.