Helga Thorson

Helga Thorson
Germanic and Slavic Studies

Germanic Studies professor Helga Thorson was awarded UVic’s university-wide Award for Excellence in Teaching for Experiential Learning in 2017. Every other summer, Thorson teaches the I-witness Field School, in which students travel to Central Europe to study the memorialization of the Holocaust.

The I-witness Field School begins with one week of classes at UVic, followed by three weeks of travel in Central Europe, during which students visit historical sites, museums, and monuments commemorating the Holocaust. The course is designed to enhance students’ understanding of antisemitism, racism, religious intolerance, homophobia, and the stigmatization of mentally and physically disabled communities.

“The I-witness Field School,” Thorson says, “gets to the heart of the Humanities mission at the University of Victoria by enhancing human dignity, provoking critical inquiry, and engaging myriad voices,” as well as by fostering “an understanding of the interaction of place and knowledge. Many students come out of the program with a commitment and motivation to remember the past while working towards a better future.”

Reflecting on her experience teaching the course, Thorson notes that students are often surprised at how inspiring the field school can be, despite the gravity of the subject. “When you think about the Holocaust,” she says, “it’s a very depressing subject. And I think students are expecting for the field school to be a really sombre affair—which it is, on one level. But I think what surprises them is how inspiring it can be as well, and how much they learn about themselves, and about life in general.”

That kind of emotional and intellectual growth, Thorson says, is something you can’t easily get in a traditional lecture hall. “You’re bringing your rigorous analysis of the topics at hand together with your emotions and your values. And when those things come together, it can be a really powerful experience that’s difficult to get in a classroom.”