Lena Karlström is not like other instructors. For starters, she likes to be on a first-name basis with her students.
Last year, I enrolled in a Scandinavian Culture course (SCAN 332) without any expectations or prior knowledge. I quickly discovered that any course with Lena Karlström as an instructor will be an engaging and rewarding experience. She’s quick-witted, affable, and demonstrates profound compassion and connection with each of her students.
So, I decided she’d be the perfect candidate to show just how approachable instructors can be. We met for a chat in her office on the ninth floor of Buchanan Tower, where a broad window opens up to an astounding view of the ocean and the mountains.
A path of exploration
Lena grew up in Stockholm but was inspired to travel from an early age. She explains, “I've always wanted to be away from my hometown and my home country. So I left Sweden when I was 17.”
She spent time in Paris working as an au pair before returning to Sweden to complete her education at both the University of Lund and the University of Stockholm.
After completing her education, Lena spent time traveling extensively and doing travel writing along the way. Later, she applied for teaching positions in both Dublin and Vancouver. She reminisces, “I had no idea about Canada. I had never been to Canada...so I thought ‘just for the hell of it, let’s do it."
Since then, except for a few years back in Sweden, Lena has called Vancouver home.
Films, Fika, and fun at UBC
She now teaches in the Department of Central, Eastern, and Northern European Studies (CENES), where she specializes in the Swedish language and Scandinavian literature. She also acts as the Undergraduate Advisor for the Scandinavian Studies Program.
Lena admits that it has not always been easy living far from Sweden: “I was a single mom for quite a few years, and I had some moments where I thought ‘what am I doing here?" Still, she’s happy with her decision, saying, “the bottom line is that I love my job, the teaching, the students—and what’s not to love about Vancouver?”
Lena’s love for her profession is apparent in the way she engages with students. She explains, “I try to run it in a way that I have equal contact, equal relationship [with students]. I'm a facilitator rather than just their Prof.” In a similar fashion, she tries “to create an environment in the classroom where [students] feel at home and safe.”
“I’m here to help you—to make you feel that you made the right choice to pick the course and that you're having a fun time.”
The connection that Lena forges with her students doesn’t end in the classroom. Rather, she organizes opportunities to engage with her students in the real world, like trips to the International Film Festival, or Fika sessions, “which is a Swedish thing where you have coffee and some pastries, and then you hang out just to sit and talk.”
Due to this personal style of teaching, Lena has developed lasting connections with former students. “Quite a few people come by and just chitchat. I have students that have become friends…I’ve been invited to weddings.”
Lena is a perfect example of a UBC instructor who demonstrates that education is about so much more than homework, essays, and exams—it’s about sharing experiences, learning together, and having some fun along the way!