Sometimes life takes you on a journey. For Helene Weldt-Basson, a professor of languages at the University of North Dakota (UND), in Grand Forks, that journey began at Barnard, where she discovered her life’s passion: Latin American literature. A love of the Spanish language made her major an easy decision, but the precise nature of it took her by surprise.
Although the Spanish department at the time mainly focused on literature from Spain, the courses she took on Latin American literature so thoroughly captivated her, she knew that would be her focus in graduate school.
“When I started taking classes with Professor Marcelo Coddou, I was transformed,” she recalls. “Professor Coddou’s passion for Latin American literature, culture, and history was truly contagious. His incisive analysis of Latin American texts illuminated literature for me in new and exciting ways.”
Brooklyn-raised, Weldt-Basson earned her master’s degree at Harvard, but missing the Big Apple, she returned to New York City to do her doctoral studies at Columbia. After earning her Ph.D., she secured a faculty position at Fordham University, earning tenure and establishing her expertise in the work of Paraguayan writer Augusto Roa Bastos (1917- 2005). In recognition of her outstanding body of work, La Universidad del Norte in Asunción, Paraguay, awarded her an honorary doctorate.
Her books include I The Supreme: A Dialogic Perspective; a translation, with commentary, of Roa Bastos’ The Prosecutor; and Subversive Silences: Nonverbal Expression and Implicit Narrative Strategies in the Works of Latin American Women Writers.
Eventually, Weldt-Basson’s professional life took her far from home. Her husband is a physician who works in academic medicine. As job opportunities presented themselves and the pair were able to secure positions at the same institutions, they moved with their two children, now 20 and 24.
Their first move took them to Detroit’s Wayne State University, where they spent eight years, followed by six years at Michigan State University, in East Lansing. They moved on to their current positions at UND, where she is a full professor and he is senior associate dean for medicine and research, in 2015.
While she misses New York, her travels opened up new areas in her work. “The fact that many of the students I teach here are first-generation college students allows me to help and stimulate them in ways that make my job more challenging and essential than perhaps it was when I was teaching in New York,” says Weldt-Basson.
Over her career in academia, she has taught a range of courses — from basic language to advanced topics such as Feminism in Contemporary Latin American Literature. Perhaps her greatest joy has been developing new courses.
Most recently, she developed a capstone course on world literature that is taken by all language majors at UND. Her book Masquerade and Social Justice in Contemporary Latin American Fiction provided the framework for the course, which uses some texts analyzed in her book along with other literature that followed a similar theme.
“In teaching that, I had to really expand my horizons and learn about other literature,” she says. “Every place you go, there’s something different like that in the program that pushes you to learn new things.” •
Lois Elfman is a journalist whose work often focuses on education.