Alumni Careers Rooted in History

Over the past 60 years, thousands of Grebel alumni have taken individual Grebel courses in History and Mennonite Studies, while hundreds of Grebel alumni have received University of Waterloo Arts degrees with majors and minors in History, along with some who have pursued specializations and minors in Mennonite Studies. The following profiles highlight a few of these alumni—some who went into history professions and some who used history as a jumping point for their career. We asked alumni to reflect on these questions: Where has your background in History or Mennonite Studies taken you? How did your studies prepare you for your profession, hobby, research, or volunteer role? How has your education or profession enriched your life, taken your life in an unexpected direction, or led to an accomplishment you’re proud of? How did Grebel inspire this path?

Len Friesen (BA 1980, MA 1981, PHD 1989)

Professor, Department of History, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, ON

My studies took me to many places, though nothing more dramatic than the opportunity to live with Mary (Burkholder, also a Grebel alumnus, married in ‘77) and our young children in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union (1987-88). Since then, I’ve returned to Russia and Ukraine some twenty or more times. I’ve been a faculty member in the Department of History at Wilfrid Laurier University since 1994, though I’m now heading for the finish line. len friesen

I only started to take History courses in my second year, but the subject, and my profs, immediately had me captivated. After my undergrad at Waterloo, I took a remarkable year off as Mary and I lived and worked within an Old Order Mennonite community. After that, it was on to graduate studies at the University of Toronto with stops in Helsinki, Finland, and the former USSR (Leningrad and Odessa especially). I was so fortunate to build a career teaching Imperial Russian and Soviet history, and the history of International Relations, at WLU.  

It amazes me that I was able to research and write several books, each one a great pleasure and enormous challenge. I have been no less fortunate to spend decades engaged with students on topics that I always thought (and still do) mattered. For almost two decades Mary and I jointly served as University Mentors for five small cohorts of students in what was Laurier’s most elite scholarship. We travelled internationally with these students and often had them in our home. All of it has been immensely rewarding.

I still remember the excitement of my very first days in the fall of ’75 as an undergrad at Waterloo, and Grebel was the perfect base to get that experience rolling. I made lifelong friends in residence (though Mary stands out!), but I treasure equally the mentorship from that first generation of Grebel faculty, all of whom were still there in the mid ‘70s. I have tried to bring that same inspiration to my own students and have often thanked God for the opportunity given.

Marianne (Harder) Enns (BA 1967)
Retired Librarian, Waterloo, ON

I am a ’60s student who arrived in September 1964, one of the 100+ Grebelites who were the first to live in the new Grebel residence on campus. When we moved in, some of the carpets and curtains had not yet been installed, the bedspreads that matched the newly hung curtains were still being sewn, and the smell of fresh paint was still in the air. I was in the three-year Bachelor of Arts program with a major in History. For me, History was a stepping stone to being accepted into the Bachelor of Library Science program at the University of Toronto in 1968.

marianne ennsAfter graduating in 1969, I began my thirty-year library career. Most of these years were spent as a reference and information services librarian at the Burlington Public Library. I have now been retired for almost twenty years, and I have been fortunate to travel and to enjoy my interests in reading, attending concerts and theatre, quilting, movies, and gardening.

The history I studied came alive when I toured the Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel in Rome, when I walked up the stairs of Buckingham Palace in London, or when I saw the opulence of Versailles near Paris France, the Winter Palace, Peterhof, and the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. It came alive on a dreary day when in 1984, I saw the barbed wire and concrete fence that separated East and West Germany, and when I visited Mennonite landmarks in Amsterdam and Friesland, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, the underground war rooms of Churchill in London, the underground hospital in Jersey in the Channel Island, and the Monument of the Discoveries in Lisbon, Portugal, to mention a few.

History can be boring: facts, dates, wars, kings, dictators, presidents, leaders. But it is more than that. It is about story. The story of very ordinary people with ordinary lives impacted by historic events. Ordinary people like my maternal grandmother. In 2012, I discovered a few letters my widowed grandmother had written in the spring of 1926 from the Mennonite Colony of Molotschna to her brother who was already in Canada. As I read and translated these letters, I had a dream that I would tell my grandmother’s immigration story, a story set against the background of historic events. It became a cooperative endeavor with other family members, and in 2022, Lieber Bruder Hans; the Immigration story of Maria Fransen and her family was published.

A few of my memorable Grebel moments include Sunday evening Chapel services with Dr. Walter Klaassen delivering sermons that challenged us to ask questions, first-year courses in Old and New Testament where we looked at old stories in new ways, and weekly suppers where we had to dress up. I also remember the first day of my first year, moving into residence, meeting other students, and making friends—some who have become lifelong friends for over 59 years. Our long friendship is rekindled every year when we meet for our annual spring lunch together.

Rebecca Janzen (BA 2007, MA 2009, PhD 2013)
McCausland Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature, University of South Carolina, Columbia SC

My preparation in Mennonite history at Grebel has led me to a career in that area, although in a circuitous way. I am a McCausland Professor of Spanish and comparative literature at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, and one of my research interests is Mennonites in Mexico. My studies at Grebel absolutely prepared me for this. I have an MA and PhD from the University of Toronto, in Spanish with a focus on Latin American Literature, and while there I took two classes at the Toronto School of Theology (but they had nothing to do with Mennonites). I then was employed at Bluffton University, a Mennonite institution in Ohio, from 2013-2017, where I combined my preparation and training in Latin American literature and culture with my previous interest and study in Mennonite history. rebecca janzen

The preparation I had in general Mennonite history, together with connections I made at Grebel, gave me background knowledge and were really helpful for starting my research projects. I remember in my Mennonite history class with Marlene Epp, we visited sites like an Old Order Mennonite school and Brubacher House Museum. This let me think creatively about how to do research, and how to put Low German speaking Mennonites in Mexico, who are mostly Old Colony, in a larger context, in terms of similarities to and differences from Old Order Mennonites and Amish. This area of research let me take my dissertation/grad school/first book areas of expertise in Mexican history, familiarity with Mexican archives, libraries, and academic systems, to a new and really exciting project! It culminated with research (thanks to the Plett Foundation) in the summers of 2015 and 2016, a semester fellowship at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania in spring 2018, and the publication of my book on Mennonites (and Mormons) in Mexico in the fall of 2018.

Gordon Durnin (BA 1985, 1987)
Journalist, Various Locations

My history background has played a critical role in my work as a journalist. In fact, it was in part due to studying the role journalists played in finally informing the world about the true nature of the war in Vietnam that led me to seriously want to work in the field. Later, already reporting on aspects of the conflicts in Central America for the student newspaper Imprint, I took what would prove to be a decisive course in Latin American history from Arnold Snyder who had recently returned from Nicaragua.
gordon durninThat, more than anything, sent me straight to Costa Rica upon graduation where, within four months, I began working as a sound recordist and assistant on a TV crew that did field work for US, Canadian, and European networks, covering the entire region and parts of South America. 

Without a sense of the history, from pre-Columbian to conquest and colonization to the modern revolutionary and post-revolutionary “globalized” eras, it is impossible to interpret current events in Latin America. History is, of course, the study of context, and without context it is impossible to truly comprehend the human drama of the present. The core of my understanding of Latin American history and the history and dynamics of “Cold War” revolutionary movements was formed at the University of Waterloo and Grebel. 

Had I not been exposed to the history, politics, philosophy, and theology of non-violence at Grebel, something that remains central to my principles and motivation, I don’t think I would have had the extraordinarily rich life of travel, cultural encounters, and the opportunity to witness first-hand a great many historical events that I have had. I do feel I have sometimes helped bring nuance and insight to stories and given voice to the often-voiceless over the years. But the essence of what I do is record, organize, and broadcast images and sound. These things, more than words, inform the world’s understanding of the present. It’s difficult to single out any one accomplishment about which I am proud, but among my Top Ten moments would be the images, shot from the nosebleed sections of a mile high stadium in Denver, of Barack Obama accepting the Democratic nomination for President in 2008, breaking the story of the Islamic State’s horrible enslavement of Yazidi women for sex in northern Iraq and, just now, in August, covering a most extraordinary national referendum in Ecuador that voted to keep oil in the ground and withdraw all the infrastructure that was built to extract it in the country’s Amazon region. Stay tuned—a documentary, now nine years in the making, is on its way to the edit room!

Thanks to the multi-disciplinary approach of the PACS program, the extraordinary people there and in the Peace Society, and the powerful, radical idea/hope of non-violence that was everywhere in the air at Grebel—despite my, shall we say, less-than-enthusiastic approach to academia—I did somehow manage to fulfill my study requirements, earn a degree, and come away with a few valuable things that most definitely inspired, influenced, and characterized my work.

Henry Paetkau (BA 1976, MA 1977, PhD)
Happily Retired! Waterloo, ON

My curiosity about Anabaptist and Mennonite history, awakened at Bible College, was further nurtured at Grebel. Several history courses and a summer job in 1976 interviewing Mennonite immigrants to Ontario from the Soviet Union in the 1920s, popularly referred to as Russlaender, under the direction of Walter Klaassen, served as inspiration for my further studies. Graduate studies in Canadian immigration history under the supervision of Frank Epp culminated in my thesis that focused specifically on the resettlement of the Russlaender in Ontario from 1924-1945. henry paetkau

My hopes that these studies would eventually lead to an academic career were soon set aside, however, given the reality that there were few teaching positions available in the field at that time. However, opportunities for pastoral ministry serving that same Mennonite community were more readily available. Rod Sawatsky introduced me to a small, rural congregation in Essex County that was looking for a part-time minister. This role was a good fit, allowing me to complete my dissertation while serving this congregation. That was the beginning of over 20 years of ministry in Harrow, Windsor and then in St. Catharines, ON.

Grebel professors were not only teachers but also mentors, encouraging my studies and connecting me with Mennonite academic institutions and church leaders across Canada. Those connections and relationships grew into and through involvement in conference committees and boards, leading eventually to leadership roles in the denomination (Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church Eastern Canada) and at Conrad Grebel as President.

Rather surprisingly, 45 years after completing those oral history interviews, they opened a unique opportunity to be involved in planning and leading in the commemoration of the centenary of the arrival of the first group of Russlaender in Canada in 1923. This three-week train and bus tour from Quebec City to Abbotsford, BC in July 2023 was a most unexpected and rewarding culmination of my interest in and engagement with Mennonite studies nurtured at Grebel many years earlier.

Barb Draper (BA 1977, MTS 1997)
Editorial assistant, Canadian Mennonite magazine, Editor, Ontario Mennonite History, Elmira, ON

My passion for Mennonite history, and for the church, first took root during a course at Conrad Grebel College. In 1974-75, a Mennonite history course with Frank Epp began my journey of researching church history. I remember touring the Mennonite Archives of Ontario which was then located underneath the Grebel Chapel. Twenty years later, while studying Theology at Grebel, more research into the Mennonites of Waterloo Region in the 19th century led to the publication of my book, The Mennonites of St. Jacobs and Elmira: Understanding the Variety, published by Pandora Press in 2010. barb draper

After graduating from teachers’ college in 1978, my studies at Grebel gave me the background to teach Mennonite history at Rockway Mennonite Collegiate. Knowledge of Mennonite history has been invaluable in subsequent years for understanding something about other Mennonite groups. During my years at Canadian Mennonite magazine, the staff looked to me to make sure stories involving Mennonite history were accurate.

One of my earliest experiences with Grebel was a Sociology course taught by Winfield Fretz where he encouraged us to research our family trees. Tracing my roots from Waterloo Region to Pennsylvania to the Palatinate to Switzerland has been a long and fascinating journey. When my father’s physical health was failing, we worked together to publish two family genealogies.

Perhaps the richest reward of my studies was the day I received a call from a bishop in the local Old Order Mennonite Church who asked for permission to make copies of my 1997 research paper which explores the reasons for the Old Order split in late 19th century. It warmed my heart to think that their church leadership valued my perspective.

All my work in Mennonite history can be traced back to Grebel.

Photo: Sam Steiner and Barb Draper discuss Mennonite history at a book launch on Oct. 23, 2010. Canadian Mennonite photo.

Marta (Longacre) van Zanten (BA 1990, MEd 1995, PhD 2012)
Senior Associate, Foundation for Advancement of International Medical Education and Research (FAIMER), A Member of Intealth, Philadelphia, PA

I graduated with an Honours BA in History in 1990 but I have never worked in this field. Following graduation, I moved to the Netherlands and did a variety of odd jobs for three years before returning back to the US. After a few years of teaching English as a Second Language, I took a position with Intealth, an organization located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania that certifies physicians who obtained their medical degree outside of the US and want to do post graduate medical training in the US. I’ve worked at Intealth for the past 26 years in a variety of roles, and I’m currently a Senior Associate. I conduct research on medical education quality assurance processes for 180+ countries around the world. marta

My studies in history prepared me to continue my education. I’ve completed a Master’s in Education and a PhD in Public Health. My education in history provided me with a strong foundation for taking a meandering continuing education and career path! At my time at Grebel, I never envisioned a career in medical education policy or that I would go on to obtain a doctorate degree. I’ve had the opportunity to travel all over the world to learn about physician education and health workforce issues. Grebel inspired me to think globally and cultivate curiosity.

David A. Martin (BA 2003, MA 2004)
Math Teacher, Waterloo, ON

I came to Grebel and the University of Waterloo to study Mechanical Engineering, but I was miserable in the program. Finally, in my 2A term, I was able to take my first elective—Marlene Epp’s Mennonite History class. This course was deeply influential. At that time in my life, I was uncomfortable with my identity as a Christian. But through that course, I became interested in my Swiss Mennonite ethnic roots, even though I had never set foot in a Mennonite Church.

david martinI soon switched programs into History. For the first time, I was interested in what I was learning and excited to go to class. I believe I took every Grebel History course on offer at the time. Werner Packull’s 20th-Century German History is one that really stands out. I’ll never forget his lecture on East Prussia, where he recounted his experience as a young refugee.

My BA and MA in History didn’t lead directly into my career. There were a few twists and turns before I came into my eventual job as a high school mathematics teacher. But Grebel certainly helped me discover myself and led me into the Mennonite Church. All these years later, I still haven’t figured out who I am or what I believe, but Grebel gave me the space to wrestle with the big questions in a safe space. I am forever grateful for this.

Deborah Neill (BA 1995, MA 1996, PhD 2005)
Associate Professor, Department of History, York University, Toronto, ON

I was introduced to Mennonite history while I was living at Conrad Grebel College and completing my undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo. I went on to do an MA in History at the University of Toronto in the fields of Mennonite and Eastern European/Russian History. My MA project looked at the relationship of the Mennonite leader Johann Cornies to the Imperial Russian Government and the development of the major Mennonite agricultural settlements in Ukraine in the 19th century. For my PhD work, I moved away from Mennonite history and into the fields of German and French colonial medical history. My current work explores imperial expansion and colonial capitalism in western Africa in the late 19th century. deborah

While many academic mentors have inspired my path, there were two professors at Grebel whose influence was particularly important for my decision to pursue a career as a professional historian: Professors Werner Packull and Len Friesen. Their mentorship, guidance, academic expertise, and enthusiasm for their students not only helped me gain the foundations for researching and writing history, but gave me a model of how to be a kind mentor to students. Further, the tools I learned from Mennonite studies, including approaches that explore inter-imperial interactions, transnational history, and “history from below,” have greatly informed my research.

Studying Mennonite history has an influence on how I teach history to undergraduates. Mennonite studies gave me a fresh perspective for understanding the history of Canada, and it introduced me to many other fields including European migration, colonial studies, and peace and conflict studies. I am proud that I still use the rich and complicated history of the Mennonites in Russia as a means to tell bigger stories to my students: of settlement, survival, the World Wars, European, and North American history.

Living at Grebel introduced me to student-centred professors who provided new research perspectives and methods. In one course, taught by Professor Friesen, we had the opportunity to conduct oral interviews with Mennonites from the surrounding community and document their stories of survival, emigration, and settlement in Canada. This was history that was very real, raw, and important, and I am grateful for that project and to Grebel for approaches that integrate academic research with connections to the larger community. I am also grateful for the unique holdings in the Grebel library and archives. On a personal level, I met my husband, Andrew Dueck (BSC 1995) at Grebel and we’ve been married for 25 years.

Edmund Pries (BTh, BA, MDiv, MA 1988, PhD 1995)
Associate Professor, Wilfrid Laurier University, Kitchener, ON

History and Mennonite Studies have broad applicability, including in the fields of Peace and Conflict Studies, Religious and Church History, History of Law (at least in my sub-field on Oath-Swearing), Disarmament Treaties, International Humanitarian Law, Global Justice, and several other fields. I have taught all of these—and more. I am an Associate Professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in the Department of Global Studies with a cross-appointment to the Department of Religion and Culture. I also coordinate the MA program in Religion, Culture and Global Justice and the Laurier side of the Joint PhD program (with the University of Waterloo) in Religious Diversity in North America. So, broadly defined, I am working in my field. After a hiatus from the university, I returned to teaching part-time in 2006 but have been employed full-time in a professorial role at Laurier since 2012.

edmund priesIn addition to my research and scholarship in Anabaptist history, I focused my career on classroom teaching and innovative experiential learning pedagogy. My work was well-received and, as a result, I was the recipient of four teaching awards and, most recently (September 2023), the Howard Zinn Lifetime
Achievement Award.

I came to Grebel as a grad student, but I was never formally enrolled at Grebel. Dr. Walter Klaassen flew to Saskatoon, where I was working as a pastor, to invite me to come and do graduate studies at Grebel/University of Waterloo. After one year, he retired, and I completed both an MA and PhD in Anabaptist-Mennonite History with Dr. Werner O. Packull as my supervisor. These scholars, both based at Grebel, were a gift to me. At the time of my studies, Grebel did not have grad programs, but Grebel was an academic and social home for me. I had a study carrel, keys to all buildings, including the library, and I was always welcome to hang out in the Faculty Lounge with the Faculty.

David G. Neufeld (BA 1982)
Retired, Museum Programmer, Waterloo Region Museum,
Volunteer on various Historical committees, New Hamburg, ON

I was very fortunate in that I was able to have a career in history, which was my field of study. I worked as a museum professional for over 30 years, doing public programming and designing education programs for exhibits. I worked five years with Parks Canada and then 30 years at the Waterloo Region Museum. dave neufeld

It was very much an extension of an interest I had in history, that I pursued in my education, and then continued to pursue in my work and volunteer life. I am currently retired but I continue to be involved on a volunteer basis on boards and committees related to history, like the Mennonite Historical Society. Taking Mennonite History and History of Christianity courses at Grebel added to my overall understanding of history.

I had always assumed that I would teach history at the high school level, but there were very few teaching positions available back in the 1980s. I just seemed to keep getting drawn into the museum world and it seemed that I was well-suited to the museum profession. That was a surprise that I did not expect. While at the Waterloo Region Museum (formerly Doon Pioneer Village), I worked with a fantastic group of colleagues. During our time there, we transformed a fairly tired old museum into an award-winning institution with cutting edge programs and exhibits. I am quite proud of that.

Photo: from the Amish Bicentennial Celebrations in 2022. David gave a presentation together with Rebecca Seiling on the Indigenous History of Wilmot Township entitled “What stories have we not been telling?”