By Andrea Starr
Assistant Professor of Finnish Studies, Hilary Virtanen described herself as this when referring to her natural curiosity in and outside of the classroom. She loves to learn, but more importantly, she loves to teach.
“My favorite part about teaching is giving the electricity that I feel from all the stuff that interests me to the world, and then watching it catch onto other people when it does,” said Virtanen. “I love when I get to go up to the front of the room and just tell stories that get students’ minds turning. Sometimes it’s tough for a student to start bursting out into questions during our lecture sections, but they do come to my office later and say, ‘Hey, you know, I was thinking about that Swedish king who was skiing for his life and ended up becoming the king of Sweden, and I was wondering if you could tell me more about him’ or stuff like that comes up.”
In college, she studied English and Anthropology; however, when she went onto graduate school, Virtanen decided to incorporate Finnish Studies into her plan. She earned her first Master’s degree in Folklore, all the while focusing on Finnish studies. She then went on to earn her second Master’s in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Wisconsin, where she is currently finishing her Ph.D. in Scandinavian Folklore. “These interests I had, you know: anthropology and folklore, and literature, and all kinds of things, just kind of mushed together into this Finnish Studies,” said Virtanen.
Although she grew up all over the country, her family is originally from the Copper Country. And it is her heritage that influenced her eventual career path, leading her here to Finlandia. “I’d always come back for visits, and I just always knew that there was something interesting and different about this culture that I kept kind of seeing, and that I was a part of through my family,” said Virtanen. This intrigue with her family’s heritage inspired her to study the Finnish language at her high school. “I fell in love with the language right then and there,” she said.
Virtanen came back to this area ten years ago while she was still in graduate school for her Master’s degree. She worked as an intern at the Finnish American Heritage Center (FAHC) for two summers, and in 2011, she began the process of talking to faculty around campus about the possibility of a steadier job. The previous Assistant Professor of Finnish Studies, Beth Virtanen, an aunt of Virtanen’s, happened to be taking a job elsewhere, allowing for Virtanen to discuss with higher-ups what became her created position, where she would work half-time developing the freshmen Sisu seminar classes and half-time working in public programming at the FAHC.
“Over time, it developed into teaching more and more, because that’s where my expertise really is,” said Virtanen, “and just this month, they made me Assistant Professor of Finnish Studies.”
She is always excited to teach what she has prepared for her class lectures, and if you’re not willing to learn, well…let’s just say, she won’t force you to stay.
Virtanen’s passion for teaching has its downsides as well. Her excitement in the classroom causes her to walk a thin line when dealing in constructive criticism with students. “I have this huge desire for my students to succeed,” said Virtanen, “and sometimes I feel bad when I have to say whatever it is that I need to address with a student to help them do better. Sometimes I feel badly about that, because I worry so much that somebody is going to take [my criticism] to heart in a bad way, and I worry that I’ll end up hurting them more than I’m helping them.”
Despite these challenges, Virtanen is inspired by her students’ successes. She has had many students come back to her to tell her how Finnish Studies has influenced their lives in unique ways, very similarly to how it has influenced her own. Virtanen sees Finnish Studies as a broader platform of connection for her students as they incorporate it into their lives.
“Getting to work here is my dream job,” said Virtanen. “It combines everything I want to do as a professional, and it’s in the area I want to live in, and have a family in.” As a wife, mother, student, and a professor, Virtanen sees her work not only as a job, but as a way to combine what she loves with how she lives. Her husband and children all participate in Finnish traditions, and Virtanen sees this as a way to balance her professional duties with her home life. “If you’re only doing things that you love in ways that you can involve other people in your life, it’s pretty manageable,” said Virtanen.