Humans of UD: Alexandra Wilhelmsen, Ph.D

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Name: Alexandra Wilhelmsen, Ph.D.

Department: Spanish

BS: Tell us a little about your travels and how you ended up at the University of Dallas.

AW: My family — a family with no Spanish blood whatsoever — went to live in Spain in 1957. My father was a philosophy professor at the University of Santa Clara, and he had a sabbatical. We went to live in Avila, the town where St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross were from. My parents fell in love with Spain, so we stayed … eight years in Spain. My father had various grants to do research and write, but eventually he had to get another job. So he went to the University of Navarra, in northern Spain, and I started college there. After four years of my father teaching there, we came to UD.

I arrived at UD as an 18-year-old junior, double major: Spanish and politics. But of course, we had traveled around Spain and Italy, and I had studied in Rome for two years. I was very lucky, I had something very similar to our UD Rome experience. I was there from ages 13 to 15, in a Spanish school in Rome, just like our students are in an American school in Rome. While I was there, I went on a number of school excursions to Italy, to Venice, Naples and all of that. That was absolutely wonderful. Then I went back and got my doctorate in Spain, so I was able to travel some more. But a lot of my travels have occurred in the past 15 or 20 years. I went many times to Italy to gather research material. It’s been wonderful to get to know Italian intellectuals, and go to libraries and archives, and things I couldn’t go to while I was a student. My father had studied German in high school and college, and so he was always very oriented toward the Habsburg empire and Austria, so many of my travels were in that part of the world.

BS: What was it like to have a UD professor as a parent?

AW: He was a typical absent-minded philosophy professor. He was absent-minded, but my father was always extremely enthusiastic. He had a booming voice. Things were always exciting around him. And at the dinner table, he always had something interesting to talk about, or some interesting visitor, or he was reading the draft of an article, and my mother would always make us be quiet so she could hear it and give him editorial suggestions. And he tended to have a house full of students. People would come in and want to talk to him … My mother was very sick, which was one of the reasons why we stayed in Spain for so long because we could afford to have a lot of household help. She was not able to do very much, but she was extremely intelligent and had been to college for a number of years. They had great conversations together, and my mother was very interested in Spain. She was a convert and was very interested in St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross. In Avila, she loved to visit the places associated with both of them. She was very interested in visiting Roman ruins.

BS: Tell us about your father’s involvement with the very first March for Life.

AW: I was in Spain getting my doctorate when that happened, but that was when the pro-life movement was just getting started. A clinic had opened up in Washington, D.C. that was doing the first abortions. My father was one of the founding editors of a Catholic magazine that was in print for 10 years, called Triumph, and Triumph magazine decided to invite its readers to have a little demonstration, a pro-life demonstration, in Washington. So my father went up for that, and he was one of the speakers at that. There were three UD students who were arrested. They were let go the next morning, but they were arrested. My father was not arrested, but at that time, UD was a very small school, and very poor, so the members of the board were not very happy about this. To see in the newspaper that three UD students were arrested in a pro-life movement, and they hardly knew what the pro-life movement was, because it was just getting underway at that time. There may have been more UD students there, but only three were arrested.

BS: What are some of the changes you have seen at UD throughout your time here?

AW: I was here as a student from 1965 to 1967. I was several years younger than my class, as I said. I was gone for four years. I went to Rice for four years, to get my master’s degree in history, and then I went back to Spain to get my doctorate. I came back here in the fall of 1971 to teach. I certainly have seen a difference in students. My husband is a UD grad as well, and he started a few years before me, so his association with UD is even longer. In those days, the percentage of affluent students was larger than it is today. Also, the students were probably more conservative. But now they’re more religious. UD was known as a conservative school then. Over the decades, that is not so sharp. UD has preferred to emphasize its focus on the Western tradition, not conservatism. But at the beginning, UD was known as a conservative school, and the students were more politicized than they are today. There were better students, but on the other hand, they’re much better athletes. We didn’t have any athletics of importance, or a nice gym or anything. So there have been changes. But the changes, I think, reflect what has happened in the whole country. Overall, academic standards have gone down over the 40 or 45 years that I’ve been teaching. Students expect to have more amenities, and small fledgling schools quickly build up their athletic offerings. All of that is pretty normal. But UD students are more pious now than they used to be.

BS: If you had the opportunity to get another doctorate, what area of study would it be in?

AW: You mean other than history? Maybe art history. I’ve taught art history, although I don’t have all the credentials for it. I took a lot of art history classes in graduate school. We have a class here that I’ve taught, Introduction to the Art of Spain and Mexico, and I’ve also taught various art history survey classes.

BS: Do you have some advice for UD students?

AW: People are here at UD in a good wholesome atmosphere and ambiance, and they’re here with other like-minded folks. We make a big effort to have a good curriculum and to teach students well, and I hate to see students go off to graduate school and ten years later, they have completely forgotten [their values]. They’ve changed their values, they’ve bought into a much more secular or left wing point of view, and my advice always is, stay true to what your parents taught you, and stay true to what you’ve learned at UD. To me, that’s very important. You came here for a reason. Hopefully you’ve found more or less what you’ve wanted, so stick with it.

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