A professor of ESL/Bilingual education at National Louis University, Kristin Lems, MA ’75 LAS, MA ’83 LAS, received the 2021 Elliot Judd Outstanding Teacher Award presented by the Illinois Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages–Bilingual Education. The honor followed on the heels of her having won the 2018 Excellence in Teaching Award from her NLU peers.
A two-time Fulbright Scholar, Lems speaks four languages fluently and is proficient in a smattering of others, but wishes she knew her father’s native Dutch better. As she explains, mastery of languages transformed his life. “My father came to America because of his language skills. It has always been something for me to be proud of—learning and teaching languages,” she says.
A Dutch native, Willem Lems was incarcerated in World War II—not because he was Jewish, but because he resisted being drafted by the occupying German army and got caught. When liberated by the Allies, he offered his skills as an English language translator. That ultimately led to a full scholarship at Northwestern and a new life.
Kristin’s initial transitioning into another culture didn’t go as smoothly. After completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan, she went to Iran in the early 1970s to teach English. “I was a professor at age 21, the same age as some of my students” Lems says. She initially worried that they had made a mistake in hiring her. “They didn’t know and I didn’t know what we were all in for. I didn’t have a minute of training. Not a minute.” She sums up the experience as “an unqualified disaster.”
Lems believes her real education in languages began when—back from Iran—she checked in on her undergraduate sister at U of I in the mid-1970s. She also visited the Asian studies building—“because I wanted to learn more about where I had just been”—and quickly realized she had found her next home, and accepted a University research assistantship.
Recent events have her thinking about language and culture, recalling the many Ukrainian immigrants she’s taught over the years.
“I’ve never met a more artistic ethnic group in my life—music, dance, poetry,” she says. “They wanted to learn enough to share their culture with me. I worked to make space for them so they can preserve and celebrate their culture along the way.”