Alumni ProfileIlga Svechs ’58
Circle of hope: From Latvia and back

Eight years old, in a Nazi detention camp, Ilga Svechs ’58 learned something powerful that would direct her life, and then, through her, help others reclaim and direct their own.

“My mother would say to my brother and me, ‘If we are ever separated, I want you to know that no one can take hope from you. Hope will give you strength.’”

For five years, Svechs and her Latvian family had to exercise hope, first in German detention camps, then, once the war was over, in U.N.-run displaced persons camps. Finally in 1949, a dairy farmer and his wife sponsored the Svechs’ relocation to Byron, Mich.

After high school, Svechs gave up a substantial scholarship to Michigan State University to study sociology at Calvin because, she said, “At Calvin I felt I was with people and in an environment where God mattered, which echoed what my mother taught me in the camps.”

While doing clinical work at and living on the premises of Cleveland’s Metro General Hospital, she saw patients, “many of whom had come from Europe traumatized—psychotic or with severe depression—and I would say to myself, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ That’s when I started to know that I could bring a deep inner empathy to people who had lost their minds in various horrors.”

In the psychotherapeutic community, Svechs is considered to have a special expertise with patients she describes as “professionals who seem on top of their game, but who have no sense of their own intrinsic worth, because as children they were treated as objects, not human beings. I quickly focus into what these people bring as strengths, and in that way build their hope.”

Svechs, who earned her PhD in developmental psychology from Union Institute, has maintained a private clinical practice in Cleveland for 35 years now. For 29 of those she also taught in the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, where she received the Teacher of the Year award four times—a school record. 

Though she retired from Case Western in 2001, Svechs is often invited to lecture at schools in the United States and abroad. In fact, the Fulbright Commission has repeatedly asked if she would consider teaching in Latvia again.

In 1991, at the request of the Latvian government, the Fulbright Commission sent Svechs to teach developmental psychology and social ethics at the University of Latvia and at the Academy of Culture, an elite training school for diplomats. She was the first Fulbright scholar in the humanities to visit the country after the demise of communism.  The teaching of psychology was forbidden during the Communist era, Svechs explained. “Because if a person would start to become more self-aware, then he or she would become a problem to the government.”

As a result of more than 50 years of Communist occupation, Svechs said, there is much work to be done rebuilding humanities curricula. For help, the government looks to people of Latvian descent living in other countries, particularly in the West—people such as Svechs. She serves as a consultant on two boards that are directing a new course of higher education in Latvia.

“Because I came from there, I have a deep sense that I should give something back,” she said. “The Latvian educational system is definitely moving forward. For its future I am absolutely hopeful.”