College graduates far and wide can tell you the name of that one amazing professor that had a lasting impact on their lives. For high school teacher Lauren Vander Pluym ‘07, a graduate of Millikin’s history education program, that professor and his lessons continue not only to inspire her, but her students as well.
Vander Pluym met history professor Dr. Tim Kovalcik ’96 during her freshman year, and took a number of his classes and worked as his teaching assistant before participating in his Holocaust immersion course her senior year. The trip included stops in Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic, where students learned about the Holocaust and its relationship to the modern phenomenon of genocide.
“I’ve always been interested in human rights, and the trip really helped me to understand the gravity of these terrible events in a deeper way,” remarked Vander Pluym. “It’s not something that you can ever fully comprehend, but the trip set me on a path where I’ve been seeking to understand it better and better through teaching and learning.”
“This trip provided the students with perspective on the conflicting elements of human nature,” remarked Kovalcik. “On one hand, humans can create beautiful cities and inspire incredible works of architecture and art. However, there is also the terrible side of humanity, which is reflected in the concentration camps.”
After graduating from Millikin, Vander Pluym completed her master’s degree in Anthropology at the University of Chicago, and then accepted a teaching position at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School on Chicago’s north side. It was here she felt inspired to organize a trip similar to the one she experienced as a Millikin student. She could think of no better person to accompany her and her students on the trip than her college mentor, Kovalcik.
“The only person I could think of that could really add to the trip was Dr. Kovalcik,” remarked Vander Pluym. “I learned so much from him, and I knew my students would, too.”
The trip took the better part of a year to plan. Kovalcik gave monthly lectures to the students on Holocaust history to better prepare them for the trip.
“I have spoken about genocide in the classroom for over ten years now, and there is no comparison between what happens in a class on campus and an immersion travel course,” commented Kovalcik. “Experiencing the concentration camps creates an emotional connection for students that cannot be emulated inside the traditional classroom. I firmly believe this subject cannot be taught. It has to be experienced.”
The trip took place June 24 – July 2, and included Kovalcik, Vander Pluym, and 18 high school students of varying ethnicities, religions, and socio-economic backgrounds.
“The Holocaust is an event that can be seen as applying only to certain groups of people, but really, it’s a lesson for all of humanity,” remarked Vander Pluym. “I wanted to reach as many students as possible.”
Several of the students in the class had been personally touched by the Holocaust, losing grandparents or other family members. During the trip, Vander Pluym says many of these students shared stories of their family members’ oppression. “It was very powerful for students to hear the stories of their peers that have a direct connection to the Holocaust,” she commented.
An especially impactful moment of the trip was at Auschwitz, where nearly a million Jews lost their lives. Kovalcik said the students were especially touched when visiting warehouses that once held personal items confiscated by Nazi soldiers.
“Every single site has meaning, but Auschwitz is a place where the students are most reflective,” remarked Kovalcik. “Seeing abandoned items that belonged to individuals who lost their lives was a powerful experience for the students.”
The trip marked the first time Kovalcik had traveled with high students. “It was helpful for me to see the difference between the cloistered world school of academia and the more public world of high school education,” he remarked. “Hopefully the students got to see the importance of the real-world application of their knowledge.”
Vander Pluym and Kovalcik continue to keep in touch, and VanderPluym plans to use Kovalcik as a resource at her new job at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School, a Jewish middle school in Chicago. “The school really appreciated my educational background, and I definitely think my experiences at Millikin and afterward helped me land the job.”
Vander Pluym credits Kovalcik with playing a major role in her personal and professional development. “That’s what makes places like Millikin and professors like Dr. Kovalcik so different. He was there for me as a student and a person. Many professors are more interested in bolstering their own career than developing students, but Dr. Kovalcik took a special interest in my growth as a historian and a humanitarian. I know he really cares about who I became as a person.”