Lukas Urbonavičius is not your average college student. He’s first generation from Lithuania and currently in the army reserve after graduating from Fort Benning.
Urbonavičius parents, Arvy and Raminta, migrated to the United States in 1992 after the Soviet Union fell. Urbonavičius parents moved to South Omaha where they got a house from a generous older couple.
“My brother was born here and they stayed in Omaha because he had some lung problems, UNMC was very generous and took care of him,” Urbonavičius said. “But then they moved back to Lithuania for about 4 or 5 years, they moved back here and I was born in 1998.”
So what made Urbonavičius parents make the 4,893-mile trek to the United States? Urbonavičius said his parents both grew up in a time of soviet oppression, his father born in the ‘60s and his mother in the ’70s.
“Which is little to be known in America which is kind of unsettling you know because not a lot of people know about that soviet oppression that happened in the Baltic states, particularly Lithuania,” Urbonavičius said. “A few days before Lithuania gained their independence officially there were a few deaths because of soviet rage and a few houses and the TV tower were on lockdown.”
Urbonavičius parents saw the soviet union falling as a perfect opportunity to get out while things were good. With a large amount of Lithuanians establishing a good community in Chicago and Omaha, Neb they weren’t alone.
Growing up Urbonavičiu’s parents were and still are heavily involved in the Lithuanian American Community. Urbonavičius said as a child he was involved in Lithuanian dance groups and went to a Lithuanian school for a while before moving to Plattsmouth, Nebraska.
Ever since moving to Nebraska the Urbonavičius have been heavily involved in the Lithuanian community. “There used to be a pretty populated Lithuanian group in Omaha, a lot of those people came here after World War II so they are either older and not participating anymore or dead unfortunately because that’s what happens when old people get old,” Urbonavičius said.
Urbonavičius believes that he is the youngest person in Omaha’s Lithuanian community. He said that a lot of them are in college and have moved or just moved out of Omaha completely. Besides the Omaha community, Urbonavičius is also apart of JAV Lietuvių Jaunimo Sąjunga which translates to Global Lithuanians and is a big group of Lithuanians across the country. Urbonavičius said the group was originally established to keep in touch after graduating from Lithuanian summer camp, Dainava.
“We [the group] actively participate in Lithuanian politics and try to lobby and stuff like that. There was a group that went a couple of months ago to Washington DC to lobby on behalf of Lithuanian events in the EU and United Nations,” Urbonavičius said. “There is a huge amount of Lithuanian youths that are my age, that stay actively involved in the dance group, summer camps and volunteering.”
Urbonavičius dad is the president of the Lithuanian American community in the United States and has a large role in terms of being involved. He said his father is going to try to run for parliament in Lithuania once he (Luke) graduates from Doane.
“Keeping that tradition and heritage up is very important to Lithuanians because it’s not a dying community but it is very small and it is unfortunate to see a Lithuanian who doesn’t know the language or who isn’t as involved as they could be,” Urbonavičius said.
He said his favorite thing about being Lithuanian is that it is unique, and the people that he gets to meet because the culture is so small. He said if you know one Lithuanian, chances are they know other Lithuanians that you know.
Urbonavičius described the Lithuanian community is an interconnected community because there are not a lot of them. He added that across the world he believes there are maybe only a few million Lithuanians, which may seem large to some but if you compare it to the population of the United States, 300 million, it is tiny in comparison.
“It's definitely the interconnectedness we have between the cultures and stuff.
I have had the opportunity to meet lots of people in politics, and am really good friends with the general consulate of Chicago for Lithuania because the culture is so small and we are so active in each other’s lives,” Urbonavičius said.
Going into the Army
After graduating from Plattsmouth High School in 2016, Urbonavičius was headed in a different route than most of his fellow classmates. “I didn’t find the idea of college that appealing at all, [so] after graduating I joined the army,” Urbonavičius said. He enlisted and is now in his fourth year in the reserves.
“I saw service in the U.S. as a privilege because the U.S. really allowed my parents and a lot of Lithuanian cultures to immigrate here and establish ourselves,” Urbonavičius said.
Urbonavičius mentioned that it is very common to see Lithuanians in the Military since a lot of them came to America after World War II and served in Vietnam. “I saw it as a privilege to serve in a lineage of people who did that,” he said.
Urbonavičius spent three and a half months at Fort Benning for basic training, after Fort Benning he headed to Fort Bragg to do his specialized school for about another three and a half months. He said that he spent a total of six to seven months in training, which was a good chunk of that year.
“The assimilation to military lifestyle is really difficult to transition out of so I had a bit of a difficult time going back to what we would call civilian life,” Urbonavičius said. “So I left there out of necessity because after you graduate you go onto your duty station.”
Right now his duty station is in Belton, Missouri which is right outside of Kansas City, Missouri. Urbonavičius said there is a whole training facility at his station and that it is relatively small because his job is small.
“We are psychological operations which is technically a special operations branch. A lot of the training we do is unconventional, you wouldn’t see it at like ROTC,” Urbonavičius said. “I would not fit in at ROTC because it is so different. It is a fun little place and you meet a lot of interesting people.”
Urbonavičius checks in once a month at his duty station in Belton. He says that they try to be more lenient with students but it is a little difficult.
“For ROTC 70 percent of the time you’re a student and the other 30 percent you’re doing stuff there, but because my job is special operations it has a kind of culture behind it and the standards are a little bit higher,” Urbonavičius said. “It kind of forces you to dedicate a little more time to it which is a bit difficult as a student.”
Journey to Doane
After joining the army Urbonavičius took a year off and took some time to figure out what he really wanted to do. He said at the time he was dating someone who introduced him to Doane. He was looking at UNL and Doane for colleges at the time and ended up choosing Doane because track and field coach Ed Fye offered him a scholarship to throw. He said that having that opportunity to throw at Doane was a privilege and what kind of led him there because he did not have that option at UNL.
“It wasn’t the deciding factor but it was a plus,” Urbonavičius said. “I like the small school feel because I grew up in a very small town for the most part and had a very similar feeling, so I didn’t feel out of place or uncomfortable.”
Urbonavičius said he would’ve come to Doane in the fall of 2018 but had to come in the spring of 2019 due to his month-long training cycle that fall in Mahaffy Desert.
“But, it was in October [that] I tried to say I would like to go to school on time but the Army gets what they want,” Urbonavičius said. “Now they are a little more lenient [with me] because I have established myself and I am like look ‘I am just trying to get my degree and get a job.’ At the time it was a bit difficult to transition from just doing that to also being a student as well.”
Urbonavičius is majoring in Environmental Studies and hopes to get into a doctoral program in Oregon. “I want to move to a city that has more of a Lithuanian presence. Which right now the main options are New York, Chicago, Seattle, or Portland because those are heavy concentrations of Lithuanians, as well as California but I don’t want to go there,” he said.
He’s looking into a degree program that continues his major in environmental studies because he’s passionate about it and is looking to be involved with a Lithuanian community. He said he would stay in Omaha but sadly the Lithiuanina group is small and is “just almost not worth trying to keep it up because there are only 30ish active Lithuanians who actually do stuff in Omaha.” Where he could go to a bigger city like Chicago or Portland that have bigger communities with thousands of Lithuanians.
“There’s a suburb outside of Chicago that is like a little Lithuania, it has Lithuanian stores churches and it is super cool and that is the world center for Lithuania outside of Lithuania,” Urbonavičius said. “[So I’ll] Definitely try to go to a community where it is more prevalent so I can get more involved.”
Ceres Highland Games
The summer after coming to Doane Urbonavičius competed in the Ceres Highland games. It was at these games that he realized he wanted to throw at Doane. Urbonavičius said he grew up powerlifting and doing a lot of strength training, he enjoyed being strong but eventually got bored of just being strong and wanted to do something that involved strength and athleticism.
“I found the Highland Games through youtube and found it really interesting because it’s from that northern region of Scotland which has a lot of similarities with Lithuania in terms of culture, attitudes and personalities. Also because it was huge guys in kilts, how is that not appealing,” Urbonavičius said.
After doing his research he took interest and found a group in Omaha that does an event called Spring Fling which is like an amateur Highland Games. So Urbonavičius started training for the six events that are in the Highland Games. He practiced a few times with the group in Omaha and even competed in a few of the games, kilt and all, before going over to Scotland for the actual games.
“In Ceres, the Ceres Highland Games is the oldest Highland Games in the world since like 1314 they have had a game every year except for years of war. Which is cool to be a part of that culture and to have your name be in that game,” Urbonavičius said.
The games are held north of Ennebra by about an hour in a little Scottish village. At the games Urbonavičius had the honor of competing against world-class athletes, one of them being former world champion KyleRandalls.
Urbonavičius said he was the smallest guy at the games coming in at 5 foot 10 inches, 200 pounds compared to the Scottish men who most of them were 6 foot 5 inches or 6 foot 7 inches and weighing around 300 pounds. Urbonavičius felt humbled to be competing against them.
“You think you can throw far but then these guys are world champions you know. I got to throw with this one guy named VladislavTuláček, he is from Ukraine I believe, and he competes in the Highland Games and actually won the world championships this year,” Urbonavičius said.
He noted that it was cool going into the Highland games with some college throwing background. Urbonavičius competed in an event called the Cere’s Stone, which is a 100 pound stone with a handle on it.
“I tried to throw it like a weight and no one else could throw it how I threw it because it is such an awkward thing, most try to throw it overhead,” Urbonavičius said. “Which is really cool because Vlad actually asked me how I threw it like that, so to have a world champion ask you how to do something was such a cool experience.”
That highland games was Urbonavičiu’s first international game as an amateur and might be his last for a while. The highland games main season is in the fall which interferes with NAIA’s rule of not competing on another team or another sport. Urbonavičius said that during the summer he can compete in one or two games but is limited otherwise.
“I'm going to see how these few seasons of track go. Because not, to be braggy but I have a very bright future in hammer throw so I will see how that goes and if it doesn’t go beyond where I could keep training for that I would definitely look to keep throwing in the Highland Games because the community is so close and it will keep me active as well,” Urbonavičius said.
Keeping the traditions alive
Urbonavičius said that it is easy to forget your culture when you’re surrounded by nothing but other cultures and that it is easy to not speak the language or not have a lot of music around you.
“I try to listen to a lot of Lithuanian music or stuff in that language when I can, I bring food back and I try to watch [Lithuanians], there’s a lot of Lithuanians in the NBA so I put that on TV. I try to stay involved with the Lithuanian culture while I am here [at Doane],” Urbonavičius said.
When Urbonavičius is back home with his family in he said that they speak only Lithuanian and that his mom makes some of his favorite dishes. “Lithuanian food is amazing so I try to bring that back to Doane whenever I can and get my friends to taste it,” Urbonavičius said.
Polka dancing is another thing that Urbonavičius and his family try to incorporate a lot. One of his favorite things though is that Lithuanians have a lot of holidays that, his favorite one being Joninės. With Lithuania being one of the last countries in Europe to be Christianized in 1387 a lot of their holidays are based on pagan holidays but have Christian names.
Another interesting thing about Lithuanian’s that Urbonavičius mentioned is that wood carvings are a huge thing in Lithuania culture, so how Italians have marble and granite sculptures they have wood.
“If you go to Lauritzen Gardens in Omaha there is an entire section dedicated to Lithuanian wood carving which we know the guy personally who did it. He stayed at our place and we also visit him in Lithuania every now and then, he is a really cool guy,” Urbonavičius said.
He added that Lithuanians have a profound impact on a lot of places around Omaha. Omaha is sister cities with šiauliai which is a city in Lithuania. The University of Nebraska Omaha, UNO, and Šuliai university have programs together because of their sister cities. “They have a Jaxx music festival they go back and forth to every year and take students to. There is a lot of stuff, If you look into Lithuanians in American there are quite a few,” Urbonavičius said.
Urbonavičius brought light to one of the common stigmas of being Lithuanian. He said that it is common for Lithuanians to be associated with Russians because of their thick accents making them sound eastern European in some ways. Urbonavičius parents got taken advantage of sometimes because they spoke primarily Lithuanian and had learned English from watching The Simpsons and Friends.
“They got taken advantage of a few times when it came to getting a mortgage and stuff like that because they saw they spoke broken English and were still assimilating to the culture,” Urbonavičius said.
He added that you will see a lot of Lithuanians who hold a presence against eastern European countries and Russia specifically because of the long oppression.
“So if you ever meet a Lithuanian don’t call them Russian because they will probably get mad. I won’t because I am understanding and will just correct them but it is common to be identified as Russian,” Urbonavičius said. “Some Lithuanians find it horribly offensive, my grandparents refuse to speak Russian just because of how much they endured.”
Reporters: Jace Tamayei, Ryan Hopkins, and Ethan Marker contributed to this story.