ABERDEEN, S.D. – In the study of history’s most horrific events, some people’s stories have been left largely untold.
These are the people Northern State University’s Dr. Steven Usitalo is interested in learning more about – and it’s the focus of a seminar he will attend on his third trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Usitalo, professor of history, will travel to Washington, D.C., in January to attend the Mandel Center’s Jack and Anita Hess Faculty Seminar. He received a grant from the Holocaust Memorial Museum to attend the seminar, which will focus on the persecution of Roma and Sinti during the Holocaust.
Usitalo said the seminar sparked his interest because it focused on groups he was interested in but didn’t feel he knew enough about.
“There’s not a lot written on it,” he said.
A Russian and Soviet historian, Usitalo has studied genocide off and on for about 10 years. He has primarily focused on the Armenian genocide, which occurred during World War I. More recently, he has become interested in other groups – people that have been historically marginalized in the study of genocide. That includes the genocide of Native peoples in North America. He now involves lectures on that topic in his genocide course at Northern.
In today’s climate, teaching about genocide is more important than ever, Usitalo said.
“I think it’s also become more relevant than ever,” he said. “Because it’s not just a dusty historical topic. In today’s world we’re talking about race all the time, and ethnicity and immigration.”
Visits Broadened Teaching Methods
Usitalo first traveled to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2014 to participate in the Silberman Seminar, which focused on the Holocaust in the Soviet Union. His second visit the next year was a follow-up to the first.
His time as a visiting scholar at the museum has widely broadened his teaching on genocide, helping provide different ways of drawing students into the subject and making it more relevant for them.
“It’s better informed my lectures,” he said. “It’s made me more up to date, more current.”
Along with what he learns there, he also gets to interact with other educators – for example, there will be about 20 other faculty members participating in the Mandel Seminar.
His advice to others teaching the topic: “Reach out to other people in the field – other teachers, scholars. Look at how they prepare their courses, how they address these questions.”
Usitalo has worked at Northern for 12 years. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; his master’s certificate in political history at the University of Helsinki; his M.A. in Soviet and East European Studies from Carleton University in Ottawa; and his Ph.D. in history from McGill University in Quebec.
Fulbright A Great Opportunity
A Fulbright scholarship award winner, Usitalo spent the 2011-12 academic year teaching a graduate seminar at Yerevan State University in Armenia. He’s pleased that Northern students are beginning to apply for the Fulbright more often. NSU has had three students in recent years named Fulbright Scholars.
Students and faculty can apply, as well as community members who are artists – anyone who can design a research or teaching project that might be of interest to people can apply.
“It’s a really wonderful opportunity,” he said.
At NSU, Usitalo loves having the freedom to choose courses he’s interested in and feels are relevant.
“Most people in the world have never heard of Armenia,” he said. “So being able to teach a course on the Armenian genocide and get 20 students in the class – that’s great.”
Usitalo’s wife, Margarita, is Armenian, which furthered his interest in the topic.
“Being with her gave me an insight into who Armenians are,” he said.
The couple met in Canada when he was completing his Ph.D. They have a daughter, Izabella, 13.
Hopes to Expand Native Studies
Usitalo serves on NSU’s American Indian Studies Committee and said he wishes there was a greater focus on Native American studies at Northern. The committee has held events such as film screenings, and NSU offers a Native American Studies minor. No faculty member is currently devoted to the program, though Dr. Alan Neville teaches a Native American studies course for education majors.
“There are a lot of tribal resources we could use in this area,” he said. “That’s one area I would like to expand.”
Originally from Finland, Usitalo’s family moved to Michigan when he was a teenager. He enjoys living in Aberdeen, which he said is more diverse and less isolated than when he first moved here. He knows a Finnish woman who, when she first moved away decades ago, could never read newspapers from home.
“Now, the whole world is open to a degree,” he said. “So if you’re isolated, I think you make your own isolation.”
Identity Issue Prominent Everywhere
Lately, the issue of identify is prominent everywhere, he said. Finland has some of the same issues as the U.S. – and many parts of the world – with native Laplander populations facing discrimination, as well as immigration issues.
“It’s hard for people to accept change,” he said.
Usitalo said it’s hard to explain where some people’s hatred toward certain groups comes from – perhaps family, or fears. Wherever it originates, meeting people from different backgrounds is the best way to end it.
“It doesn’t help reading a book, or watching a film even,” Usitalo said. “You have to meet people to realize people aren’t that different from yourself.”
About Northern State University
Northern State University is a regional university that offers outstanding academics and exceptional extracurricular activities at an affordable price on a safe, welcoming campus. Northern State recently announced its Educational Impact Campaign, with a goal of raising $45 million for a new South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, new athletic and recreation fields, and an on-campus regional sports complex. Once the campaign is complete, NSU will be the recipient of more than $100 million in privately funded building projects and scholarships within a decade. To learn more, visit NSU Admissions.