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From Refugee to Expert | Georgia Southern Magazine

Longest-serving Professor Olavi Arens Says Teaching Keeps Him Going

If you’ve gotten attended any of the Georgia Southern Commencement ceremonies previously few years, you might need seen the distinguished white-haired gentleman carrying the mace on the head of the procession. The Mace Bearer is the dignity bestowed on the longest-serving professor.

But do you know that Georgia Southern’s Mace Bearer can be the knowledgeable you could have seen discussing the battle in Ukraine on TV?

History professor Olavi Arens, Ph.D., was born within the Baltic nation of Estonia and is steadily known as upon by the media for his insights on Russia and the battle in Ukraine.


Arens has firsthand expertise of the influence of the previous Soviet Union’s and current day Russia’s empirical agenda.

“My mom and my two brothers and I had been political refugees from Estonia, a part of the flight of individuals out of Eastern Europe as a result of Soviet Union’s enlargement of communism,” mentioned Arens. “After the Second World War it was tumultuous. We had been in refugee camps and settlements in Germany. In 1949 we got here to the United States as beneficiaries of President Truman’s refugee act.“

Arens’ household settled in Massachusetts. His mom labored tirelessly to maintain the household collectively and made certain the boys targeted on their schoolwork.

“When we got here right here my mom needed to work very exhausting as a way to keep us,” mentioned Arens. “It was a battle for her. But she made sure that my two brothers and I had been anticipated to excel in college.”

Arens graduated from highschool in Massachusetts after which went on to Harvard.

“After Harvard, I moved to New York City,” recalled Arens. “It was overwhelming to be at Columbia in bustling New York after quiet Harvard.”

For his grasp’s diploma Arens matriculated via the Russian Institute at Columbia University and continued at Columbia for his Ph.D.

During the writing of his dissertation on the revolutionary developments in Estonia of 1917-18, Arens spent a 12 months in Helsinki, Finland, conducting analysis and steadily visited St. Petersburg, Russia (known as Leningrad on the time) for additional examine.

Later, he taught at Montclair State College in New Jersey and a non-public highschool in New York.


In 1974, Arens was on the lookout for a brand new alternative.

“I attended the American Historical Association Conference in New Orleans and met the division chair at Armstrong who invited me to Savannah,” mentioned Arens with a chuckle. “I assume the interview went effectively as a result of they provided me the job.“

At the time, colleagues questioned why Arens could be interested in a sleepy Southern city. But as a historian, he appreciated the historical past of Savannah and enjoys the historic preservation that’s now so evident. In truth, he lives in a historic Savannah dwelling.


Forty eight years after arriving in Savannah and educating first at Armstrong State after which the consolidated Georgia Southern, Arens nonetheless tries to impress on college students the necessity to assume in new methods.

“I labored with Olavi final summer season to create a mapping undertaking he makes use of for educating,” mentioned T. Kurt Knoerl Ph.D., a Georgia Southern assistant professor of historical past. “I used to be intrigued by how, after many years of educating, he was nonetheless on the lookout for new methods to get college students engaged with studying. He has college students discover an exhibit he created to study what Christopher Columbus truly knew in regards to the earth and what was in his thoughts when he started his explorations.“

The scholar accolades for Arens are many.

“I used to be in a position to examine overseas in Estonia with him because of his single-handed efforts to safe me a scholarship,” mentioned Autumn Johnson (‘09), assistant professor and particular collections librarian at Georgia Southern’s Henderson Library. “Dr. Arens is solely the kind of professor that actually made you need to strive more durable, learn extra, assume extra.”

Arens mentored historical past scholar Lee Hitt (‘20) on her honors thesis.

“He had various late nights with me, serving to me whip my thesis into form,” mentioned Hitt. “Any scholar who has the privilege of taking one in all his lessons or working with him instantly mustn’t cross up the chance.”

“Dr. Arens is my mentor,” mentioned Matthew Adams, Ph.D., (‘05), affiliate professor of historical past at Savannah State University. “He has helped me extra academically than anybody. The man is a gem. I used to be very lucky in 2003 to be directed to his workplace full of mountains of papers and books the place he was hidden. I discovered my decades-long tutorial mentor by the use of his wispy white hair sticking up among the many stacks of papers the place he was studying a e book.”

It’s apparent that Arens loves educating as a lot as his college students take pleasure in learning with him.

“I imply, that is what retains me going, educating,” mentioned Arens.


Because Arens is from Estonia, he consistently watches what’s going on with the battle. He thinks it will likely be exhausting to foretell what is going to occur with President Putin in cost.

“For him, Ukraine was merely a part of this Russian empire. So he has to attempt to present the Russian inhabitants and the remainder of the world that Russia issues,” mentioned Arens.

But Arens sees hope in the way in which a lot of the world has responded to the battle.

“I’m usually heartened by the insurance policies pursued presently by the United States and the European leaders of sticking collectively and presenting a standard entrance.”


“I’m scheduled to show my trendy Russia historical past course within the fall for the primary time in just a few years”, mentioned Arens. “And I all the time make it obtainable to older individuals within the Savannah neighborhood. They can attend class freed from cost if they’re over 62. And in fact, we as academics benefit from the lessons the place we’re in a position to get various scholar conversations going. If you’ve bought a great combine of scholars it’s
very stimulating.”


Retiring from educating looks like a distant thought to Arens. When requested about any future retirement plans, he talks as a substitute in regards to the wants of scholars.

“It’s extra necessary than ever as we speak that college students want to grasp the place individuals from one other tradition are coming from. And once I learn my closing exams, and if I discover college students perceive that, then I’ve accomplished my job. I so take pleasure in educating and so long as college students discover that I’m saying helpful issues and prodding them, then no. I can’t retire.”

It appears like Arens would be the Mace Bearer for some years to come back.

— Liz Walker

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