Ally Letson ’21 felt a haunting eeriness as she walked around Oranienburg, Germany. She couldn’t help but notice just how peculiar the scene appeared. In one direction, citizens went about their errands, commutes, and gatherings in a residential neighborhood. When she looked the other way, she saw an old three-story gate surrounded by cement fencing. Inside was an empty gray where tens of thousands of people once took their final breaths.
Letson had stopped in Oranienburg, a town just north of Berlin, in May 2019 as part of Illinois State’s inaugural Social Justice: Trip Through Genocide experience, led by Dr. Jacqueline Schneider and Dr. Susan Woollen. Letson was overwhelmed emotionally when she looked into that gray space, which held the remains of the Nazis’ Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
It was there that the Lombard native’s perspective changed. Letson grew up feeling safe and felt fortunate to have strong relationships with neighbors and relatives. But after seeing two worlds that day seemingly co-exist, she realized it isn’t always easy to stand up for others. She wondered what would have happened if residents of this same neighborhood had stopped what was happening during World War II a stone’s throw from their doorsteps.Appears In
As someone who foresees a future vocation in therapy counseling and raising awareness about mental health, Letson thought the experience that day was invaluable.
“It’s so good to have that understanding that some people might think or act differently because they’ve been through things that we can’t even imagine,” Letson said.
“Acknowledging the fact that people go through crises helps in trying to understand people.”
Schneider and Woollen’s partnership has given Illinois State students the opportunity to see just how important it is to look out for others.
Schneider, professor of criminal justice sciences, and Woollen, former director of undergraduate studies and enrollment management in the Department of Criminal Justice Sciences, share an interest in understanding how Germany—which Schneider described as “this amazing, cultural, social, and scientific icon of the world”—descended into the madness of the Nazi state in a few short years.
After teaching criminology for more than a decade abroad, Schneider wanted to bring that international conversation to Illinois State when she arrived in 2009. She and Woollen then worked for years to create the trip to Europe so students could see for themselves how evil came to power. The course—a two-week excursion across Germany and Poland that started in 2019—is an opportunity to broaden students’ horizons and apply a global perspective to national and local issues.
“The worldwide community has a responsibility to protect those who can’t protect themselves,” Schneider said.
Schneider and Woollen believe it is important to look at genocides and atrocities through the lens of criminology and try to understand how to neutralize these types of crimes. The pair are co-authoring a book that brings a new conversation to existing scholarship, as well as introducing new practices to either eliminate or reduce the crimes.
Students on the trip are encouraged to employ similar thinking as they stand in the ruins of some of history’s darkest moments—just as Letson did at Sachsenhausen.
“It presents an opportunity to reflect on our situation here,” Woollen said. “We’ve talked about slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation and talked about the oppression and repression that people of color experience on a daily basis. Those are types of harms that emerge from our conversation with students.”
Tyler Marcheschi ’20, who was a graduate student on his 2019 trip, recalled how the tour guides at Dachau concentration camp acknowledged the horrific actions
of their fellow citizens less than a century earlier.
“They weren’t ashamed to give you the full picture,” Marcheschi said. “I think everyone was very open and honest about everything and answered every question respectfully. They wore it on their shoulders.”
Schneider and Woollen make clear to students that the trip is not a two-week vacation through Europe. They plan to restart the trip this school year after the last two were canceled due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Thanks to nightly discussions and a commitment to learning, students on the trip tackle the difficult emotions that come with revisiting some of history’s darkest chapters and think about how they can use those experiences to benefit the greater good when
they return home.
Areanah Preston ’20 took that to heart. Troubled by underrepresentation of minorities in law enforcement and too many episodes of police brutality claiming lives of unarmed people of color, Preston sought to take meaningful action but didn’t quite know how. Preston, a Black woman, had contemplated entering police school even before traveling abroad.
Based on what she saw, experienced, and heard firsthand in Europe—at sites where police battalions ran roughshod over entire communities—Preston turned contemplation into action. She has entered the academy for the Chicago Police Department with the goal of building trust between law enforcement and underrepresented communities.
“I know a big thing for our trip was finding voices for those who didn’t have a voice,” she said. “When I got back, I wanted to be an officer. I felt like I could be a person to fight for justice.”
Carson Hinshaw ’21 also went on the inaugural trip in 2019. Her experiences inspired her to pursue law school to work toward becoming a civil rights lawyer. Being in Europe added to what she knew about the Holocaust, and it motivated her to amplify voices against a system that doesn’t always grant equal access to everyone.
“We have these problems,” Hinshaw said. “Now let’s go forward and let’s fix them instead of putting them on the back-burner.”
Schneider and Woollen meet with students after the trip to discuss how they can improve their own communities and influence change. They’ve written letters to representatives. They’ve held voter registration drives. They plan on volunteering at local food banks. And they intend to continue the conversation across campus and beyond.
Woollen also became a docent for the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, which is the third largest in the world. That relationship has allowed the University to promote the museum’s free seminars and, consequently, open up the discussion even further.
Last February, renowned Holocaust historian Christopher Browning discussed his book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland to a virtual audience. The Department of Criminal Justice Sciences was a community partner for Browning’s talk about group dynamics turning otherwise ordinary citizens into cold-blooded killers. Woollen and Schneider estimate that more than 100 people from within the Illinois State community tuned in to the lecture.
The Social Justice: Trip Through Genocide immersion experience aims to build extraordinary citizens who will stand up to injustices. The conversation is just beginning.
“I wish every day that I could go back,” Preston said. “I had ideas, but I didn’t know how to vocalize them. The trip made me a stronger person.”