From refugee to expert | South Georgia Magazine


Professor Olavi Arens, the oldest, says teaching keeps him going

If you have attended any of the Georgia Southern Commencement ceremonies in recent years, you may have seen the distinguished white-haired gentleman carrying the mace at the head of the procession. The Mace Bearer is the honor given to the most senior teacher.

But did you know that Georgia Southern’s Mace Bearer is also the expert you may have seen talking about the war in Ukraine on TV?

History professor Olavi Arens, Ph.D., was born in the Baltic country of Estonia and is frequently asked by the media for his thoughts on Russia and the war in Ukraine.


Arens has direct experience of the impact of the empirical agenda of the former Soviet Union and present-day Russia.

“My mother and two brothers and I were political refugees from Estonia, part of the flight of people out of Eastern Europe due to the Soviet Union’s expansion of communism,” Arens said. . “After the Second World War, it was tumultuous. We were in refugee camps and settlements in Germany. In 1949, we came to the United States as beneficiaries of President Truman’s Refugee Act.

The Arens family settled in Massachusetts. His mother worked tirelessly to keep the family together and made sure the boys focused on their schoolwork.

“When we got here, my mum had to work really hard to support us,” Arens said. “It was a struggle for her. But she made sure that my two brothers and I had to excel in school.

Arens graduated from high school in Massachusetts, then went to Harvard.

“After Harvard, I moved to New York,” Arens recalls. “It was overwhelming to be at Columbia in bustling New York City after the tranquility of Harvard.”

For his master’s degree, Arens enrolled in the Russian Institute at Columbia University and went on to Columbia for his doctorate.

While writing his dissertation on the revolutionary developments in Estonia of 1917-18, Arens spent a year in Helsinki, Finland, conducting research and traveled frequently to St. Petersburg, Russia (called Leningrad at the time) for further study.

Later, he taught at Montclair State College in New Jersey and at a private high school in New York.


In 1974, Arens was looking for a new opportunity.

“I attended the American Historical Association conference in New Orleans and met the head of Armstrong’s department who invited me to Savannah,” Arens said with a chuckle. “I guess the interview went well because they offered me the job.”

At the time, colleagues wondered why Arens would be drawn to a sleepy southern town. But as a historian, he appreciated Savannah’s history and appreciates the historic preservation that is now so evident. In fact, he lives in a historic house in Savannah.


Forty-eight years after arriving in Savannah and teaching first at Armstrong State and then at the consolidated Georgia Southern, Arens is still trying to impress students on the need to think differently.

“I worked with Olavi last summer to create a mapping project that he uses for teaching,” said T. Kurt Knoerl Ph.D., assistant professor of history at Georgia Southern. “I was intrigued by how, after decades of teaching, he was always looking for new ways to engage students in learning. He asks students to explore an exhibit he created to discover what Christopher Columbus really knew about the earth and what he had in mind when he began his explorations.

The student honors for Arens are numerous.

“I was able to study abroad in Estonia with him because of his efforts to get me a scholarship,” said Autumn Johnson (’09), assistant professor and special collections librarian at Georgia Southern’s Henderson Library. “Dr. Arens is simply the type of teacher who really made you want to try harder, read more, think more.

Arens mentored history student Lee Hitt (’20) on her honors thesis.

“He spent more than a few late nights with me, helping me get my thesis in shape,” Hitt said. “Any student who has the privilege of taking one of his classes or working directly with him should not pass up this opportunity.”

“Dr. Arens is my mentor,” said Matthew Adams, Ph.D., (’05), associate professor of history at Savannah State University. “He’s helped me more academically than anyone. The man is a pearl. I was very lucky in 2003 to be directed to his office filled with mountains of papers and books where he was hidden. I found my academic mentor of decades through his hair vaporous whites that stood among the piles of papers where he was reading a book.

It is obvious that Arens enjoys teaching as much as his students enjoy studying with him.

“I mean, that’s what keeps me going, teaching,” Arens said.


Because Arens is from Estonia, he constantly monitors what is happening with the war. He thinks it will be difficult to predict what will happen with President Putin in charge.

“For him, Ukraine was just part of this Russian empire. So he has to try to show the Russian people and the rest of the world that Russia matters,” Arens said.

But Arens sees hope in the way much of the world has reacted to the war.

“I am generally encouraged by the current policies of the United States and European leaders of sticking together and presenting a common front.”


“I have to teach my modern Russian history class in the fall for the first time in a few years,” Arens said. “And I still make it available to seniors in the Savannah community. They can attend classes for free if they are over 62 years old. And of course, as teachers, we appreciate classes where we can engage in various conversations among students. If you have a good mix of students, it’s
very stimulating.


Retiring from teaching seems like a distant thought to Arens. Asked about possible future retirement plans, he talks more about the needs of students.

“It is more important than ever today that students need to understand where people from another culture come from. And when I read my final exams, and if I find that the students understand that, then I’ve done my job. I love teaching so much and as long as students find me saying helpful things and pushing them, then no. I will not retire.

It looks like Arens will be the mace bearer for a few years.

—Liz Walker


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