He’s been to Spain, Italy, Scotland, Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Finland, Sweden, Norway — whew, let’s pause and take a breath here — Denmark, Poland and the Czech Republic, among other European countries. Oh, and he’s also been all over the U.S.
Now, this world traveler is in Detroit Lakes.
Gatis (pronounced “got this”) Melbardis, a 26-year-old from Latvia, has been pounding the pavement here since early June for his summer job with Southwestern Advantage, a Nashville-based company that makes educational books and interactive learning materials for kids.
He’s been going door-to-door, visiting homes in every neighborhood in old-fashioned salesman style. You may recognize him as that guy you saw walking down the street, lugging around a big backpack. Or maybe you’ve met him because he came knocking on your door, wearing his blue polo shirt and a big smile, happily handing you his business card.
“I’m very respectful,” Melbardis says of his approach to sales. “I’ve learned a lot about communicating with people, about what is effective. You have to read people and communicate in the way that they would like. Some people are expressive and go along with chit chat, other people are very fact-oriented and analytical, so you have to understand that … And you have to know when to move on with people.”
He admits that door-to-door sales are “not the easiest job,” but this is his sixth summer of doing it, and he’s grown to love it. He’s learned so much about himself, he says — how to manage his perspective and emotions — and about how to talk to people that he feels the personal growth he’s experienced and skills he’s learned far outweigh any challenges of the work.
And here in town, he says, those challenges haven’t really been all that great, as the vast majority of people he’s met have been friendly to him.
“I love Detroit Lakes,” he says. “Everyday I meet lots and lots of cool people. I don’t know if it’s something you guys drink in the water over here, but ... people are really, really cool. I feel very welcome in the community.”
Melbardis is a student at Riga Technical University in Riga, Latvia (the nation’s capital), where he’s pursuing a master’s degree in business management. His bachelor’s degree is in e-business and logistics management systems. He’s not exactly sure what he wants to do after he graduates, he says, but whatever kind of work he finds, he wants it to be something that’s helpful and meaningful to other people’s lives.
Putting the needs of others first is the biggest thing Melbardis has learned through his years of sales, he says. Six years ago, before he started with Southwestern Advantage, he was all about “me, me, me.” He had big plans to become a wealthy, successful entrepreneur like his two older brothers, but his goals and approach to that have shifted now.
Today, he’s the manager of seven other European college students who are currently in Minnesota through the same program he is. They’re stationed all over the region, living in their assigned areas with host families. They get together on Sundays to have a meeting and then socialize, which usually means “hanging out at a lake,” Melbardis says (“We’re in Minnesota. That’s what people do here.”)
He worked his way up to the management position after five prior summers of sales in the Sioux Falls and Black Hills area of South Dakota; Hershey, Pennsylvania; Los Angeles, California; Grand Island, Nebraska; and southwestern Minnesota. Students in the program don’t get a say in where they’re stationed, he says. They’re just assigned to a place and that’s where they get to go.
The program they’re a part of, the Southwestern Advantage summer sales and leadership program, is the nation’s oldest student program of its kind, dating back to 1868. The purpose of it is to help college students afford their degrees, build character and gain entrepreneurial skills.
The program sends a sales force of about 1,500 student reps from across the world to the U.S. and Canada each summer, where they meet with local families, talk about education, and present the company’s product line of academic books, apps and websites for kids. Melbardis says it has helped him pay his college tuition.
Currently making the rounds in Frazee, Melbardis will likely be visiting smaller communities around Detroit Lakes in the near future, such as Callaway and Audubon. He arrived in Minnesota on June 5 and will be staying through Aug. 28 on a 90-day cultural and education exchange visa.
After his time here is up, he’ll head back home to Latvia, where his mom, dad, siblings and a longtime girlfriend anxiously await his return. While he loves to travel and see new places, Melbardis says, his long-term plans include settling down and raising a family in Latvia: “It’s home,” he says.
The country lies on the Baltic Sea between Lithuania and Estonia, and is highly developed and independent. It has the highest literacy rate in the world, of 99.9%. About 2 million people live there.
Melbardis spent the first eight years of his life in the Latvian countryside, and then moved to the 27,000-person, history-laden city of Valmeria, where he attended school, played soccer and ran track and field. He speaks Latvian, English, and a little bit of Russian and Spanish.
“It’s very similar to Minnesota,” he says of his home country’s landscape. “It’s mostly flat, with lots of rivers. Lots of agriculture… It’s just a normal place to grow up.”
For more information about Southwestern Advantage and the program Melbardis is a part of, visit southwesternadvantage.com.