News @ Minnesota State University Moorhead

Kyja Kristjansson-Nelson Named MN Professor of the Year

Posted on November 20, 2014

Film Professor, Filmmaker is MSUM’s 11th CASE Professor of the Year

View an interview with Kyja here.

The art of filmmaking balances the big picture against the small picture details, said Minnesota State University Moorhead film studies Professor Kyja Kristjansson-Nelson. That harmony is also central to the teaching and learning process, a balance Kristjansson-Nelson manages with sharp perspective and fluid athleticism, which is why she was named the 2014 Minnesota Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching during a November 20 ceremony in Washington, D.C. Kristjansson-Nelson is the 11th professor at MSU Moorhead to be recognized by the Carnegie Foundation.

The U.S. Professors of the Year awards program celebrates outstanding instructors across the country. Sponsored by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, it is the only national program to recognize excellence in undergraduate education.

Kristjansson-Nelson joined MSUM’s emerging film studies department in 2006. However, 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 Kristjansson-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 with academic departments and a welcoming community that embraces the creative arts.

She praises the built-in collaborative laboratory that students partake in. “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, and these collaborative and creative collisions are powerful.”

Kristjansson-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, because in the real world if you don’t know how to work with people from different backgrounds, projects will fail,” Kristjansson-Nelson said.

Aside from outstanding teaching, Kristjansson-Nelson’s personal and professional commitment to students who’ve been under her guidance is her greatest impact.

MSUM student Zach Marion (2007, 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.”

Many drafts and editing sessions later, he submitted the piece to festivals for exhibition. “Kyja helped me fully commit to and accomplish my own desire. Ultimately, the film won Best Film at the Rochester Short Film Festival, which eradicated my fears about directing,” Marion said.

Today, he is an MFA film-directing candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“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.”

“As a teacher I want our students to go to the best graduate programs and to become the best filmmakers ever, but part of being a teacher is to help students find their path in life, and I don’t care what that path is,” Kristjansson-Nelson said.

One such student was Katie Diiro, a 2007 film studies graduate, who Kristjansson-Nelson intentionally mentored.

“I was lost my senior year. I did not 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, which she was embarrassed about. On a return trip to campus, she and her mentor reconnected.

“I was nervous to meet with Kyja since I had this idea that I let down the whole film department,” Diiro said.  “As I entered her office she 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 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. “She also collaborated with me on a campus film screening of Invisible Children, to educate the community about conflict in Uganda.”

Through her filmmaking, Diiro has founder her calling, and is now enrolled in MSUM’s counseling graduate program.

“Kyja did not choose my path for me, yet she guided me every step of the way. She taught me to follow my dreams – no matter if they are a far cry from my undergraduate major. That is what makes her a truly excellent professor.”

MSU Moorhead Carnegie Professors

MSU Moorhead professors have been recognized with more Carnegie Professors of the Year designations than any college or university, public or private, in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, or Wisconsin. MSUM’s Minnesota Professors of the Year (in bold are current MSUM professors): Brian Wisenden, 2013, biosciences; Russ Colson, (also the Outstanding U.S. Master’s Universities and Colleges Professor) 2010, anthropology and Earth science; Martin Grindeland, 2008, mass communications; Ellen Brisch, 2007, biosciences; Mark Wallert, 2005, biosciences; Jim Bartruff, 2001, theatre arts; Andrew Conteh, 1999, political science; David Mason, 1994, English; Evelyn C. Lynch, 1992, education; and Delmar J. Hansen (deceased), 1987, theatre arts.

U.S. Professors of the Year Award Program

The U.S. Professors of the Year Award Program was created in 1981 to increase awareness of the importance of undergraduate instruction at all types of higher education institutions. The program recognizes faculty members for their achievement as undergraduate professors. The Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) began the Professors of the Year program with the Carnegie Foundation hosting the final round of judging. The Carnegie Foundation sponsors the cash award given to U.S. national winners.

The awards recognize professors for their influence on teaching and commitment to undergraduate students. In addition to four national winners, this year a state Professor of the Year was recognized in 36 states from among a pool of more than 350 top professors in the country. Judges selected national and state winners based on four criteria: impact on and involvement with undergraduate students; scholarly approach to teaching and learning; contributions to undergraduate education in the institution, community and profession; and support from colleagues and current and former students.

National and state winners of the 2014 U.S. Professors of the Year awards will be honored today at a luncheon and awards ceremony at the National Press Club and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

Council for Advancement and Support of Education

The Council for Advancement and Support of Education is one of the largest international associations of education institutions, serving more than 3,600 universities, colleges, and independent elementary and secondary schools in 76 countries. CASE is the leading resource for professional development, information and standards in the fields of educational fundraising, communications and marketing, and alumni relations.

Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is an independent policy and research center that supports needed transformations in American education through tighter connections between teaching practice, evidence of student learning, the communication and use of this evidence, and structured opportunities to build knowledge.


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