Young alumna among national ‘top thinkers’

Image of Hollie Nyseth Brehm picutred with an father and his children from Rwanda.

Hollie Nyseth Brehm, ’08, pictured with a rescuer and his children in 2012. “Rescuer” is the term used for people who risked their lives to save others during the Rwandan genocide.

Her research aims to help predict genocide

A UW-La Crosse alum says genocide is predictable — and may even be preventable. Hollie Nyseth Brehm’s research on patterns in genocide has ranked her among the nation’s “30 Top Thinkers Under 30.”

Nyseth Brehm, a 2008 alumna who is 28 years old, made the list of young people across the country Pacific Standard magazine predicts will have a serious impact on the social, political and economic issues it covers. Pacific Standard profiled the top 30 in April.

Nyseth Brehm, who recently defended her doctoral dissertation at the University of Minnesota, was surprised to learn people outside her circle were paying attention to her research. She jokes that she initially thought the recognition could be a scam, but her University of Minnesota professors assured her it was not. In addition to an honor, it’s an opportunity, she says, to spread the message about the prevalence of genocide.

“It’s exciting to have another venue to reach other people and teach about how genocide is still occurring,” she notes.

The public’s general conception is that genocide is a thing of the past, says Nyseth Brehm, but it actually continues to happen at alarming rates. Genocide killed more people during the 20th century than all of the wars of the century, she says.

In graduate school, Nyseth Brehm has used statistical modeling to look at factors that influence the onset of genocide. She’s found that the strongest factors associated with whether a genocide will happen are civil wars, coups and revolutions.

Discovering her future

When Nyseth Brehm came to UW-L, she thought she’d eventually pursue medical school. Her life took a sharp turn after filling a general education requirement with an introductory sociology course. She recalls becoming fascinated with the study of sociology, a field that makes the familiar seem strange. One assignment in Sociology Professor Enilda Delgado’s class was to go to a toy store and examine the different patterns in boys and girls toys.

“I had never really thought about why boys’ toys are blue. It’s so simple, but it’s an example of how we socially construct our world, which is taken for granted every day,” she says. “Learning what sociology is and its implications changed my entire trajectory in terms of what I wanted to do.”

She changed her major to sociology. Delgado says Nyseth Brehm was the only one to earn a perfect score on every exam in her social statistics class. But beyond intellectual aptitude, she says the young woman has integrity, positive energy and compassion.

“She is one of those students you know is going to do great things — no matter what,” says Delgado.

Hollie Nyseth Brehm pictured talking to a Rwandan man in front of a garden with purple flowers.

Hollie Nyseth Brehm, ’08, talks with a survivor of a massacre at a church in eastern Rwanda in 2012. Many Rwandans hid in churches during the genocide in 1994, thinking they would be safe, so multiple massacres occurred in churches. This survivor was a young child there at the time. His mom was killed, but he and his sister were able to escape. This is in the mass graves; the color of remembrance in Rwanda is purple, so the mass graves are decorated with purple flowers.

Delgado made Nyseth Brehm her lab assistant and was the first to encourage her to pursue graduate school. She was accepted into several prestigious programs and chose University of Minnesota, where she received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship near the end of her second year.

At the University of Minnesota, she became interested, more specifically, in studying genocide. Her dissertation aims to understand why genocides occur and how they unfold. She analyzed the preconditions of genocide in about 150 countries during the last 50 years. She spent four months doing fieldwork in Rwanda and Bosnia, where she conducted 70 interviews with people who witnessed violence across the countries. She also interviewed Darfur refugees in other African countries as genocide is still ongoing in Darfur.

“I ran into her faculty in Minnesota and their statements to me have been — ‘Can you please send me more students from UW-L like Hollie,’” says Delgado. “I feel enormous pride for her and I think this validates that UW-L’s program in sociology is extremely strong in preparing its students.”

Delgado says she and Nyseth Brehm have been in touch since she graduated, recently meeting up in Minneapolis.

“Hollie has a special place in my heart and I couldn’t be happier for her,” says Delgado. “If anyone can change the world, it’s Hollie.”

Changing the world

For Nyseth Brehm, changing the world isn’t too much of a stretch. She’s already played some prominent humanitarian roles. She worked with the Rwandan government’s genocide prevention commission to train government officials on how to conduct research and is doing an assessment of the country’s local courts that tried genocide suspects.

During her last year as an undergraduate, she co-founded a Minneapolis-based school for Somali refugees and has served as chair of the school board for the past three years. She also volunteers for non-profits dedicated to human rights and shares her research results with non-profit organizations.

Ultimately, Nyseth Brehm wants to help understand early warning signs of genocide and inform genocide prevention efforts. She hopes to one day be the United Nations special adviser on genocide.

She looks forward to teaching others about the subject that she fell in love with as an undergraduate. She will be an assistant professor at Ohio State University in the fall.

“I really hope to convey what one individual can do,” she says. “A lot of students are pretty optimistic and want to go out and change the world. I want to help nurture that, but also help them be a little more critical and take time to reflect on their privilege and the sociological factors shaping their and other’s life experiences.”

And, she adds, that she’d like to encourage a little sociological imagination — like Professor Delgado did for her.

“I want students to question everything — why things are the way they are — whether a child’s toy or genocide.”