ABERDEEN, S.D. – Dr. Steven Usitalo understands the merit in studying even the darkest aspects of history.
When scholars scrutinize recurrent acts of genocide, they can better characterize the individuals and groups responsible and, in the best of hopes, help prevent any future instances.
Usitalo, a professor at Northern State University, was recently named a Faculty Fellow of the 2014 Silberman Seminar for University Faculty, which takes place annually the first two weeks of June in Washington, D.C. The event invites selected professors to explore the resources of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and seeks to offer methods to improve the way history is taught.
Visiting and re-visiting the story of the Holocaust and other examples of genocide are crucial in education, says Usitalo.
Born in Finland, Usitalo acquired an early interest in the European countries around him, touring areas of the Soviet Union (especially Leningrad, now St. Petersburg) in student groups. His family immigrated to the United States while he was a teenager, but his interest remained firmly rooted in the narrative of the Soviet Union.
He attained an undergraduate degree in history at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and it was there his fascination with Russia’s history and language first formally pervaded his studies. He returned to Finland for a master's certificate in political history at the University of Helsinki.
School took Usitalo from Finland to Canada, and he completed his graduate studies in Ottawa and Montreal. With a doctorate of history in hand, he taught for three years at McGill University.
He met his wife, Margarita Aroutiunian, in Montreal. She taught Russian at various schools in Montreal, and for a time was affiliated with the Russian and Slavic department At McGill University. She had emigrated from Armenia, a part of the former Soviet Union. The two spent time in subsequent years traveling abroad, mostly to Armenia, where he gained particular interest in the country’s history and mass genocide during the early 20th century — certainly one of the first “modern” genocides.
Usitalo moved to Aberdeen eight years ago. While teaching at NSU, he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship and spent the 2011-12 academic year teaching a graduate seminar at Yerevan State University in Armenia. He finds teaching about modern genocides compelling, and the energetic setting in Yerevan helped him “understand the topic from an Armenian’s point of view.” He is also working with a scholar at the Armenian Museum-Institute to co-write a book on the Armenian genocide.
Usitalo continues to enjoy teaching at NSU as well as the freedom to design his own courses. “Students here are open to discuss the subject of genocide — they don’t have much exposure otherwise,” he said.
The professor continues to encourage students to open themselves to history — that the subject is more multi-dimensional than the memorization of well-known political events. Within history lies the opportunity to examine battles and statistics but also, perhaps more importantly, to better understand human nature and the things that drive us to violence.