Northeastern Illinois University History Professor Patrick Miller could not have picked a more opportune point in modern American history to travel overseas as a Fulbright Scholar.
Appointed as the 2016–2017 Fulbright Bicentennial Chair in American Studies at the University of Helsinki, Miller arrived in Europe in August of 2016—just in time for the stretch run of an American presidential race that captured the attention of the entire world.
The theme of Miller’s appointment was diversity and multiculturalism, and his home country provided plenty of fodder for conversation and debate in his host country.
“In recent years, Finland has been coming to terms with an increasing number of people from beyond the borders,” said Miller, who taught in the University of Helsinki’s Program in North American Studies/Department of World Cultures. “Some are refugees from terror and political chaos elsewhere; some are participating in the European Union through academic and other exchanges. Many Finns are starting to recognize the ideal of diversity and multiculturalism, and this is playing out in the grade school system as well as in university course offerings.”
Miller, who lived in a Fulbright residence in the center of Helsinki, spent part of his first month interviewing Finnish graduate students who were applying for research positions in the United States. When classes began in September, much of Miller’s lecture material was similar to what he teaches at Northeastern.
“The students know a lot of the material, but they really liked having the comparative context of American civil rights brought in,” said Miller, who had participated in two previous Fulbright exchanges to Germany. “The average Finnish person—at least in the capital city and the university—is far better informed about political events than what we might perceive in the United States.”
As an expert on American history and multiculturalism, Miller’s perspective on current events was in demand—both in Finland and nearby countries.
Miller guided seminars on African-American history and race relations, as well as social movements in comparative perspective. He watched the American election returns from the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki and later participated in a panel discussion about Donald Trump’s first 100 days as president. And as a major part of his Fulbright appointment, he delivered public lectures/plenary talks titled “The Long Civil Rights Movement: From the March on Washington to the Arab Spring” and “Symbols Matter: ‘Race’ in Popular Memory and Public History.” On those occasions—both in Finland and beyond to Germany, Tunisia and Spain—Miller helped organize symposiums, workshops and roundtables concerning the place of the United States in the world of nations during the 21st century.
“People are interested in the positive dimensions of American political culture—which they see through the lens of Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama and the Women’s March,” Miller said. “But they are also vitally aware of the stunning turn of events of 2016 and the first half of this year.”
In his time outside of the lecture hall, Miller toured Helsinki by foot, visited museums and even participated in political rallies. He returned to Northeastern in June and is now teaching summer History classes.
“Ultimately, the Fulbright was a great experience,” Miller said. “It is good to travel, and to feel comfortable in other people’s languages and cultures.”
Top photo: Northeastern Illinois University History Professor Patrick Miller (center) poses with (from left) Thomas Wilhelmsson, Chancellor of the University of Helsinki and Professor of Civil and Commercial Law; Donna Welton, Deputy Chief of Mission, U.S. Embassy in Finland; Mikko Saikku, McDonnell Douglas Professor of American Studies, University of Helsinki and President, Nordic Association for American Studies; and Terhi Mölsä, Chief Executive Officer, Fulbright Finland Foundation. The photo was taken at the J.W. Fulbright Bicentennial Inaugural Lecture on Dec. 9, 2016.