Field school founder wins prestigious teaching award


Helga Thorson’s teaching philosophy was inspired by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel’s advice to “think higher, feel deeper.”

A researcher whose groundbreaking field school transforms university students into eyewitnesses of how European countries remember the Holocaust is the 12th University of Victoria scholar to be recognized with Canada’s most prestigious award for excellence in leadership and teaching. 

Helga Thorson, announced today as a 2019 3M National Teaching Fellow and the third UVic scholar in five years to receive this award, is the co-founder of UVic’s I-witness Holocaust Field School, the next of which will take place in 2020. Launched in May 2011, it was the only one of its kind at the time to be offered to undergraduate students at a Canadian university. Thorson’s innovations have also led to the creation in UVic’s Faculty of Humanities of the first and only graduate-level Holocaust studies stream in Canada, also one of only a few in the world. 

“I am very honoured. I have never aspired to be a leader,” Thorson says. “It happened because I’m passionate about teaching and because I’m passionate about what I teach.” 

Thorson was inspired by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel’s advice—“think higher, feel deeper”—to create a field school in which emotion played as central a role in learning as intellectual rigour. 

There’s something about the field school where the students gain so much academically in terms of their confidence as scholars. It also just opens their mind to what it means to be a human being with their own responsibilities in the world and leads them to contemplate what they want to do with their lives.
Helga Thorson, 2019 3M National Teaching Fellow

As a result of their experiences, students in the UVic field school have gone on to law school, programs in Indigenous governance and international relations, and co-op or practicum placements ranging from London’s Helen Bamber Foundation to the Auschwitz memorial museum, and various other international human rights organizations. 

Thorson is the chair of UVic’s Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies. Her teaching interests span various fields, including German language and conversation courses, as well as cultural studies courses on early 20th-century literature, Nazi cinema, and literature about the Holocaust and the Second World War. 

“Helga brings sensitivity, integrity and immutable humanity to the vital work of leading our students through deeply meaningful experiences of intercultural learning and personal growth,” says UVic President Jamie Cassels, himself a former recipient of the national teaching award. “From the classrooms of UVic to the museums, memorials and sites of former concentration camps in Central Europe, Helga’s leadership in experiential learning is an inspiration to her colleagues as they work to engage their students in field schools across the globe. Today is a very proud day for UVic.” 

Past UVic recipients, in addition to Cassels (Law) in 2002, are: David Blades (Education), 2016; Jin-Sun Yoon (Child and Youth Care), 2015; A.R. Elangovan (Gustavson School of Business), 2012; Gweneth Doane (Nursing), 2006; Marty Wall (Psychology), 2001; Aaron Devor (Sociology), 2000; David Berry (Chemistry), 2000; Thomas Cleary (English), 1994; Elizabeth Tumasonis (History in Art), 1992; and Andy Farquharson (Social Work), 1986.   

Thorson is one of only 10 researchers across Canada to win the fellowship this year. It was established in 1986 through the generosity of 3M Canada and the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

Watch a UVic video with Thorson speaking about the field school. 

Read a recent story about Thorson in the UVic alumni magazine.  

A press kit containing a high-resolution photo of Thorson is available on Dropbox.

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Media contacts

Dr. Helga Thorson (Dept. of Germanic and Slavic Studies) at 250-721-7320 or

Stephanie Harrington (University Communications + Marketing ) at 250-721-6248 or

Tara Sharpe (University Communications + Marketing) at

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Keywords: 3M National Teaching Award, teaching, 3M, award, field schools, human rights, Germanic and Slavic studies

People: Helga Thorson

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