Earlier in December I saw a vague post that alerted me that Dr. Helena Carlson from Lewis & Clark College had passed away. I wanted to hope it was inaccurate, although I knew she had been ailing for some time. Today I set about searching the internet for clues and found my answer. The very quirky, outspoken and brilliant professor who lead my study abroad to Ireland has passed away.
I wrote about Helena in my book Puffy & Blue: The Chronicles of Nine Lives Together:
Part of the reason I wanted to go to Lewis & Clark College was because of its international program. I set my sights on going on the Ireland trip my sophomore year and I went with twenty-four other students from Lewis & Clark College. It was an opportunity of a lifetime in so many ways. The trip was led by Dr. Helena Carlson, a professor of psychology, also from Lewis & Clark College.
As a young college student, I had no idea Helena would be the most influential teacher of my entire educational process. Helena was that monumentous in my life not because she was the leader of my trip, or a professor in the department I majored in, but because she taught me to think for myself. Really think, not just learn, absorb, and regurgitate, but to think as deeply personal individuals. I always knew what Helena’s opinion was on any topic, but she never wanted us to parrot her. She wanted us to research and decide where we stood on every topic. She challenged us to think independently.
Part of her method of teaching us about the history of Ireland was having speakers come from both the Protestant and the Catholic perspectives. We heard from political leaders on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the abortion controversy. No subject was taboo for Helena and we never got only one side of any argument—ever. She taught us to do research and make a decision only after collecting and evaluating all of the information. It was forbidden to only research the side of an argument you already believed to be right. All research had to be fair and balanced.
I found my balance under the wings of Helena. I learned to research, weigh opinions and decide for myself what I believed about every subject. I think I began to fully grow up and become Kayla in Ireland. There was nothing “Blue” about me anymore. I was me. I knew what I thought. I could speak up for myself. I felt empowered in a new and tangible way.
Helena transplanted us into the lives of people who were living out the subject that we were studying. We visited a Traveler’s Camp (the local term for gypsy community), we went into Northern Ireland (don’t tell anyone of authority at Lewis & Clark or our parents), we worked in internships, went to the theatre, hitchhiked around Ireland, had spontaneous adventures and so much more. We truly experienced Ireland, her people, her land, her controversy and her love story. And once we had studied and lived her story, we had opinions that were validated and worthy of holding firm to.
I still lean on what I learned from Helena. I honestly don’t have an opinion on a subject until I have done my research. I don’t believe anything strongly until I know I have looked at it from every angle. Once I have thoroughly researched a topic, I am willing to express my opinion. I tend to be a thinker and not a reactor because of this process I learned from Helena.
Patti Dobson posted on Facebook, “Dr Helena Carlson passed away peacefully on December 19 in a hospital in Portland from complications of Alzheimer’s. She will be missed dearly and remembered by those she touched in her life. She will be remembered as a pioneer in her family as a professor, a researcher with many published papers, many TV and radio interviews. A lover of live theater, music, fine food, traveling solo in the world, her home country Ireland, and a good martini, Jamison, wine, a book, The NY Times, The Nation, The New Yorker, (always with one folded up in her purse), her love of San Francisco, New York, Paris, Dublin, and all the hilarious mishaps that would undoubtedly always occur to her in her ‘absent minded professor’ excused ways. She loved a really good meal, a cocktail and equally important an intelligent conservation about issues of social injustices, politics, books, theater, but not the weather.”
We shared many of conversation about social injustices, Irish politics, books, Irish theater, psychology and never the weather.