Minnesota CASE PROFESSOR of the YEAR
kyja Kristjansson-Nelson balances the big picture against all of the small-picture details, as both a film professor and a filmmaker. Her sharp perspective and deliberate balance she shares with her students is why she was named the 2014 Minnesota Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. She’s MSUM’s 11th professor to be so recognized, which is more than any college or university, public or private, in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa or Wisconsin.
The U.S. Professors of the Year awards program celebrates outstanding instructors and is the only national program to recognize excellence in undergraduate education.
K-Nelson joined MSUM’s emerging film studies department in 2006. The Fargo South graduate started as an undergraduate at MSUM (astronomy and physics major) before transferring to pursue a film production degree. At the time, MSUM’s program did not include film production, which was added to the curriculum in 2004.
“Film combined all of the things I love—sound, design, music, science, math, light and creative writing,” said K-Nelson. “I’m so happy to be a part of MSUM’s film program because this is the exact program I wanted when I was a student.”
She has honed her teaching style through supportive faculty colleagues, strong interdisciplinary collaborations and a welcoming community that embraces the creative arts.
She praises MSUM’s built-in collaborative laboratory.
“One of the greatest strengths of our program, and many MSUM programs, is that students do projects with students in other majors,” she said. “We have excellent programs in theatre arts, music, English and art. These collaborative and creative collisions are powerful.”
K-Nelson is a highly decorated educator earning numerous teaching awards. She gives students flexibility to engage in projects that interest them; encourages them to take risks, and to fail; and stresses practice, critique, and more practice. She incorporates real-world experiences by pairing service-learning projects with classroom assignments and providing leadership opportunities that are essential to MSUM’s mission of helping students transform the world.
“Students must learn to be collaborators and creators and leaders,” she said.
Aside from outstanding teaching, K-Nelson’s personal and professional commitment to mentoring her students is her greatest impact.
Zach Marion ’07 (film studies) was a strong cinematographer, editor, and sound designer, but he had a secret desire to direct, “stunted by a great fear of failure,” he said. “I thought people would think my creative voice was insignificant. Kyja identified this fear and used her encouragement and support to create an environment for me to try with my thesis film.”
He went on to direct a film that won Best Film at the Rochester Short Film Festival, eradicating his fears about directing.
“Kyja came into my life at a moment when I was struggling, and, through her abilities as a film educator, revealed my life’s passion to me,” he said.
Today, he is an MFA film-directing candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“I want our students to go on to the best graduate programs and to become the best filmmakers ever, but part of being a teacher is helping students find their path in life,” K-Nelson said.
Katie Diiro ’07 (film studies) says she was lost her senior year, and “didn’t know where I fit in the world, much less in the world of filmmaking. I met with Kyja weekly to talk about my life,” Diiro said.
After graduating, she did not seek a job in film production. On a return trip to campus, she was nervous about reconnecting with her mentor.
“I had this idea that I let down the whole film department, but Kyja couldn’t have been happier to see me. I mattered. From that moment on I have been unstoppable. I have achieved more than I ever thought possible because I knew my worth did not depend on success in film,” Diiro said.
Diiro has created promotional videos for important non-profits around the globe; work she does pro-bono.
“With Kyja’s unending support, I had the confidence to raise funds to travel to Tanzania, Africa, to create documentaries about an orphanage and rural medical clinic, a goal and concept I first developed in Kyja’s Advanced Video Production class years earlier,” Diiro said.
Through filmmaking, Diiro found her calling, and is now enrolled in MSUM’s counseling graduate program.
Success comes in a lot of different shapes and sizes, and there is no one size that fits all,” K-Nelson said. “To me, it’s more about helping people find their trajectory.”
“Kyja did not choose my path for me, yet she guided me every step of the way. She taught me to follow my dreams,” Diiro said. “That is what makes her a truly excellent professor.” ∎