University philanthropist receives award

Erin Ghere

On Wednesday night, Barbara Knudson was in Italy, talking with her peers at a United Nations international conference on solar cooking. On Thursday night, she was back in the Twin Cities, receiving an award for her work connecting Minnesota to the rest of the world.
Barbara Knudson, former University student, professor and dean, has flown all over the world pursuing her passion in life: international communication.
While her husband and four children stayed at home in Minnesota, Knudson worked in refugee camps all over Africa; led study-abroad trips to India, Kenya and Columbia; and attended U.N. conferences on women all around the globe.
Her efforts were rewarded Thursday night with a Twin Cities International Award.
Passions abroad
As a University international studies professor for 18 years, Knudson taught students about development in poor countries and the roles of women throughout the world.
In 1984, Knudson took a one-year sabbatical and worked at the U.N. offices in Vienna to prepare for the second U.N. World Conference on Women, held the following year in Nairobi, Kenya.
She took another quarter off in 1995 and worked in New York to prepare for the third conference, held in Beijing, China, that summer. She also attended both conferences.
The conferences assessed the status of women in the world — taking into account educational opportunities, employment and health — and made recommendations about improving women’s status.
The 1985 conference was very politically oriented, she said, because the Cold War was underway. But by 1995, attendees were more relaxed and could dig deeper into issues without being as concerned about political lines.
Both conferences were huge, she said, with between 30,000 and 40,000 women from around the world in attendance.
Knudson said she applied her U.N. experiences to her University courses.
University role
Knudson began her career at the University as a freshman in the 1940s and continued here until 1995, retiring after 25 years as a University professor and administrator.
Knudson received her doctorate in sociology from the University in 1969, when she was 40 years old and raising four children.
She was hired the following year as assistant dean of a now-obsolete department that worked with students to create individual majors from two or more University colleges, said Terea Harrell, assistant director of the Office of International Studies and Programs.
Although Knudson is a sociologist by training, she became an administrator, serving as University College dean from 1972 to 1977.
After 1977, she left University administration, opting for a teaching job in the international studies department, where she stayed for 18 years.
During that time, she mentored a variety of students, said Harrell, a graduate student in the international studies department during the 1980s.
“(Knudson) was one of the few people at that time who provided American students with opportunities to study overseas,” Harrell said.
Although Harrell worked with Knudson on preparations for the Beijing U.N. Conference on Women in 1985, she could not attend herself.
But Knudson spearheaded an effort to create a Minnesota conference for Harrell and other Minnesota women who could not attend the international event.
The struggles of people around the world interested Knudson most, and she transferred that interest to her students, Harrell said. She promoted an idea of global inclusiveness.
“It is because of people like her that people are strategically located in international careers throughout the Twin Cities and the world,” Harrell said.
Additionally, Harrell said Knudson was instrumental in putting together a library for women and development — since dismantled — in the international studies department. Harrell said the library was an invaluable research tool for her and other students.
Knudson’s “retirement”
Knudson, now in her seventies, said neither she nor her husband know how to relax during their respective retirements.
She has spent the past five years flying around the world promoting solar-cooking devices in Third World countries, especially in Kenyan and Ethiopian refugee camps.
Because firewood is becoming scarce in those countries, solar-cooking devices will make the difference between eating and not eating for many people, Knudson said.
During her travels and experiences abroad, Knudson was fond of women in the refugee camps, where she last visited about a year ago. Nearly all of the women are illiterate, but most are very smart, she said.
“They’re survivors,” she added.
Although Knudson’s trips to refugee camps in Nairobi are not frequent, women in the camps know when she is coming, she said.
“How they know, I don’t know, but they meet the plane at the airstrip,” she said. “We can’t speak to one another, but we are friends and allies.”
When she leaves, she said about 75 women wave her off. Those women’s spirits amaze her most because being a refugee must be the most miserable place in life, she said.
“They have nothing,” Knudson said.
“They build houses out of mud and sticks; they eat what they are given — they have no place to go,” she said. “But they manage to make a life, and their children go to school,” she said.
“I admire their strength and ability,” Knudson said. “I love to do it and to be there.”
She took her 25th trip to Kenya during 1998. While on the plane, she was informed that the U.S. embassy there had been bombed.
“I knew what a tragedy that would be for so many,” she said.
Knudson said her professional life has always involved international work. Her husband, Krint, shares some of the same passion for international outreach. Soon after graduating college and marrying, the two worked in Austrian refugee camps just after World War II ended.
In the late 1960s, they lived in Kenya for two years while she worked for the Kenyan government. Since she began working in the refugee camps, however, she has had no affiliation with any government.
Until recently, Krint taught biology at Blake Prep School. He now teaches at St. Catherine’s College in St. Paul.
“He was keeping the home fires going as I was going around the world,” Knudson said.
International award
When Knudson received a 1999 Twin Cities International award Thursday, she said it was a “great pleasure” to receive the award, but even more of an honor that her friends and colleagues nominated her.
The annual awards are given to individuals and one business whose work contributes significantly to international understanding, cooperation, friendship and development.
“These awards celebrate the richness of the Twin Cities’ international connections, concerns and commitments,” said Randy Johnson, Hennepin County Commission chairman.
Established in 1992, the awards honor recipients for work in human rights, technology, arts, medicine, education, business, journalism, agriculture and humanitarian relief efforts.

Erin Ghere covers University faculty and welcomes comments at [email protected] She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3217.