Student project connects historical research to real-life experience

March 3, 2014 – Orillia, ON

Holly Wiggins’ great-grandfather, a butcher from a small town in England, joined the armed forces during the Second World War, leaving behind his young wife and two children under the age of five. His family would not hear from him again, until he was on a ship sailing back to Liverpool following his liberation from a Japanese prisoner of war camp.

Wiggins’ great-grandfather was held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese in the Pacific theatre from 1942 to 1945. He is now the focus of a research project Wiggins is completing as part of the requirements for her fourth-year “Inquiry” course at Lakehead.

Wiggins, of Orillia, who is enrolled in the Honours Bachelor of Arts & Science/Bachelor of Education program, said she was worried about going into the fourth-year course. “I would hear older students talking about their major projects for Inquiry and how much work it was. But what I was fearing at the beginning of the year has turned out to be an amazing experience.”

The Inquiry course is the cornerstone of the inquiry-based, multidisciplinary learning approach of the Arts & Science program at Lakehead’s Orillia campus. The fourth-year course requires the completion of a major research project on a topic chosen by the student.

“It’s really a bit overwhelming – to be told you can propose any topic you wish,” said Wiggins. “Once I realized that this could be an opportunity to combine my interest in history with my curiosity about my great grandfather’s experience in the war, I was encouraged and my research has turned out to be fascinating.”

After an introduction into ethics, research methods, and presentations, Wiggins’ first research task was to find out what her grandmother, who was just an infant when her father went off to war in 1941, knew about her great-grandfather’s experience. She discovered that her grandmother did not know of many details, herself, however both her grandparents shared her curiosity and helped her pull together what turned out to be crucial pieces to the puzzle.

Luckily, Wiggins’ grandmother had some important documents – such as her father’s attestation papers, official notification that he had gone missing, the one letter that he was eventually able to send home, along with a few photographs, including a picture of his two children that he kept with him for the duration of his imprisonment.

“The letter home was especially insightful because it touched on quite a few points that tied into the secondary scholarly research that I did,” said Wiggins. “In the letter, my great-grandfather talked about how ‘things haven’t been too good out here,’ that he ‘nearly gave up [when he] was very bad with malaria,’ and that he never wanted to do any cooking again – ‘I am fed up after three and a half years of playing with rice and trying to make pastry out of it…,’ as well as references to missing home.”

Wiggins discovered many references to documents and facts that are reflected in her great-grandfather’s experience during the extensive scholarly research she conducted for her project.

“When you read historical articles, you are somewhat detached, but when I realized that I actually had some of the documents being described right in front of me – that is exciting,” Wiggins said. “The connection between what I’ve been reading and a real life experience is fascinating! I’m also excited to be able to pass on a more detailed story about what happened to my great-grandfather, or what possibly happened.”

Wiggins will be sharing her research at Lakehead University’s upcoming Undergraduate Research Day on March 5, as part of the annual Research & Innovation Week activities.

“Our entire class will be presenting research posters and we will also be there to discuss our projects,” explained Wiggins.  The projects range from other history topics, such as Hitler propaganda and genocide through photographs, to social media and city planning, and even some with a local focus. One student will be presenting a project on the history of the Champlain monument.

Research & Innovation Week activities at the Orillia campus take place from March 3 to 7 and are all open to the public and free of charge. For a detailed list of events, visit

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 Holly Wiggins, a fourth-year student at Lakehead Orillia will present her research project on her great-grandfather’s World War II experience during the University’s Research & Innovation Week, March 3 – 7.

Holly Wiggins, a fourth-year student at Lakehead Orillia will present her research project on her great-grandfather’s World War II experience during the University’s Research & Innovation Week, March 3 – 7.