By Katy Harriger, Professor of Politics and International Affairs and F. Michael Crowley Distinguished Faculty Fellow, and Peter Siavelis, Professor of Politics and International Affairs
Helga Welsh joined the Department of Politics and International Affairs in 1993, after having taught at the University of South Carolina and the University of Arizona. Throughout her career, her research and teaching expertise has been European politics, with a particular interest in post-Communist states and transitions to democracy. Her department chair, Michaelle Browers, says that “Helga is a colleague with an impressive commitment to all aspects of her profession and a powerful model of the teacher-scholar ideal.” She is beloved by generations of students for her passion for her subject and her genuine concern for their well-being, recognized for her important and insightful scholarship on post-Communist Europe, and appreciated for her leadership and commitment to service on countless departmental and university committees.
Professor Welsh’s success in teaching was recognized by both the Reid Doyle Prize for Excellence in Teaching and the John Reinhardt Award for Distinguished Teaching. She developed close and long-term relationships with many students, particularly those who had the opportunity to study abroad with her or whom she mentored in their Richter Scholarship projects.
Beth Doby Knackstedt, (’02) says that she is “so deeply grateful that our paths crossed in life. For more than 20 years, she has and continues to inspire me to be a strong, independent woman and a critical thinker, all of which not only make me a better physician but a better, more well-rounded human being. I eagerly signed up for every class she offered while I was at Wake, and I jumped at the chance to study abroad in Venice with her. I am truly grateful I was able to call her professor and now friend.” Beth says that Dr. Welsh has had an impact on “more lives than [she] could possibly know.”
Madeleine Fox (’19) came to know Professor Welsh on the Eurotour during the summer of 2016 and recalls her as “an outstanding professor who made her classes relevant and interesting. For me, what made Dr. Welsh a special professor was her commitment to students after they left her classroom. After I took her class, I would still wander into her office from time to time to talk about my current classes, internships, and my career plans post-Wake Forest … even four years after graduating, she has remained interested in my future plans.”
The themes of generosity of time and advice recur in students’ recollections of Professor Welsh. Andy Sisk (’97) remembers with appreciation Welsh’s offer to meet up with him in Berlin when he was in Germany in the summer of 1996 for language study. “Professor Welsh told me if I made it to Berlin to let her know,” he recalls, “and true to form, she treated me to coffee and cake! I always remember Professor Welsh as someone who took a genuine interest in her students and was always available to help.” Her sharing of German sweets made an impression on more than one student. Jake duPlooy (’21), who had several classes with Professor Welsh, as well as working with her on a Richter project, says he first learned about her from another student. “We were discussing our foreign languages,” he said, “and when I mentioned that I studied German, she asked me if I had met Dr. Welsh. I replied in the negative, and her shock was palpable: ‘You haven’t met the German angel who brings chocolate to class? You need to, she’s great.’” He took her European Politics class the next semester and says that given his interests, he was “sure that I would have enjoyed it regardless of Dr. Welsh being a German angel who brought chocolate to class. Given the combination, however, I soon realized that I was in the right place with the right person. We connected more deeply outside of class over our shared love of the Old Continent – Bavarian villages, Viennese pastries, historical complexities, etc. – and became friends and even colleagues of a sort: she recruited me to work with her on a German constitutional research project, and so I also have her to thank for essentially my entire German vocabulary regarding legal and administrative matters and responsibilities.” duPlooy too says that Welsh has continued to show an interest in his life and career: “Even after my graduation, she has remained a source of wisdom and guidance, helping me to chart the next stages in my personal, professional, and intellectual growth.”
Student comments make clear that Helga is a born teacher. This spirit of teaching extended to her mentorship of countless colleagues in the Department of Politics and International Affairs. Helga was consistently the person in the department who welcomed new colleagues to the department with hospitality, dinner invitations, and wise mentorship.
Helga’s influence has been felt widely beyond our campus community as a leading comparative politics scholar. The legacies of the Cold War tended to place scholars of European politics in one of two “camps”: those who focus on Western Europe, and those who focus on what used to be called “Eastern Europe,” or the post-Soviet space. Mark Vail, Worrell Professor of Politics and International Affairs noted, “Helga Welsh is one of those rare scholars who can justifiably claim to be an expert in both areas, with deep knowledge of West European, and in particular German, politics, as well as extensive expertise on the former German Democratic Republic, the legacies of de-Nazification in the GDR (on which she is one of the world’s foremost experts), and of Russian and post-Soviet politics more generally. Her work, published in a wide range of monographs, edited volumes, and articles in some of the top journals in the field, has been remarkable for its ability to join these erstwhile domains of expertise and to create an ecumenical approach to understanding the politics of the European continent, at a time when such cross-European dialogue has arguably never been more important. In the area of German politics, her boundless intellectual curiosity has led to published work on a wide range of topics, from the politics of higher education to the challenges of direct democracy, to the fraught legacies of reunification.”
Not limited to her role as a scholar, Helga has also helped to shape broader scholarly debates about Germany, most notably in her role for many years as co-editor of the prestigious journal German Politics. She brings to her work a humane touch coupled with an astute scholarly mind that has left durable legacies in our understandings of German and European politics and Europe’s place in the wider world.
The list of Professor Welsh’s service contributions is extraordinarily long and impressive. She has been sought out for and willingly served on just about every committee on campus, as well as taking on various leadership positions, having particular impacts in co-leading a SAACS Quality Enhancement Plan committee on international studies, serving on scholarship and admissions committees, and working with Richter Scholars. She has been a committed adviser throughout her career. Illustrative of her commitment to her students and this institution, one of the main reasons she phased her retirement in the way she did—continuing to serve for one semester past her teaching – was so that she could see her last advising class through to their graduation.
Helga Welsh has shared generously her time and talents with her students, colleagues, and profession. She will be missed. As her longtime colleague and office neighbor Katy Harriger notes, “It is difficult to imagine the department without her.” Nonetheless, her students and colleagues alike wish for her a happy retirement where she has more time to indulge her love for reading, travel, and of course, German sweets.