Generations of students from the University of Southern Mississippi have called Dr. Andy Wiest’s classes in Europe the best learning experiences of their lives. This is partly because nobody teaches with Dr. Wiest’s amazing passion for the history of war. And it’s partly because this professor relates whatever he is talking about in the most personal and relatable ways possible. Whether it’s on Omaha Beach or at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, Dr. Wiest’s classroom will always be the most intense and moving one anywhere. This summer Dr. Wiest will be team teaching with Dr. Doug Mackaman the program’s juggernaut course on Nazism and World War Two, “In The Garden of Beasts.” Meanwhile, if he won’t brag about how many books he has published on military history, Dr. Wiest can be counted on to make grandiose claims about his skills as a drummer. He may also tell you what it’s like to have a movie made about one of his books and attend the Emmy Awards. So let’s meet this marvel in his own words…
Tell us about your very first travel experience.
My first real travel experience was going to London as a student in the summer of 1981. My hair was brown, my tie was skinny, and my jacket sleeves were rolled up in the best imitation of Duran Duran I could muster. Before that summer I didn’t know who or what I wanted to be. After that summer I knew exactly what and who I wanted to be. Becoming a citizen of the world, instead of a citizen of Hattiesburg Mississippi was eye-opening in so many ways. I grew up, I grew smarter, I grew more confident, and I boogied off into a much brighter future.
What made you decide to teach in Europe’s most moving classroom?
I have taught with Dr. Mackaman several times in the past, and working with him has always been like a blast of cold-fired energy. Being in the classroom is one thing, but being outside of it, soaking up everything cities and their nations have to offer is quite another. The Catalyst does it right, and I couldn’t wait to be a part of it.
What makes your class on The Catalyst different than a course set in a traditional classroom?
By going and seeing and doing. By touching, smelling, and experiencing. I teach about war in my real life. It is one thing to read about it. It is another thing to grasp it by being there, by tramping the battlefields and byways themselves. To stand where history happened. To walk in the very footsteps of the past. In the classroom, you learn history. On The Catalyst, you live it.
What is your favorite city on The Catalyst and why?
Trick question! All are great! So here is a trick answer. My favorite is London — I know that place like the back of my hand. Going to London for me is like getting to visit with your old high school best pal. It is familiarity, love, and comradery. On the other hand, my favorite city will also always be the one I have never visited. I always try to go somewhere new — where perspectives are fresh, where experiences are dreamed, and where memories are created. For me, if I am lucky enough to go there this summer, it would be either Budapest or Berlin.
Tell us about a travel moment that changed your life perspective or worldview.
Every travel experience does that in one way or another, but I will pick my first trip to Paris. I was in London with my classmates on the Southern Miss British Studies Program. There were hundreds of us in London, but I went to Paris on my own. I didn’t speak the language, know how to get there, know the money. None of it. But I did it. Went up in Notre Dame, walked to the top of the Eiffel Tower —the whole bit. Me. A kid from Mississippi did that on his own. That meant that I was bound to be able to do anything I wanted.
How long have you been going overseas to teach? How do your travels enhance the way that you teach and what you have to offer to Catalyst students?
I have taken students abroad since 1992 – to London, Paris, and to Vietnam especially. So I have a LOT of experience with this. This means I am super comfortable with most of the places we go, and super comfortable if things get uncomfortable. Most glitches I have seen before and can take in stride. And I am always on the lookout for brand new things to do to keep me young at heart.
What does your favorite teaching day on The Catalyst consist of?
This is the first time for me on this particular trip — so my favorite teaching day will be all of the new ones, which will be every day.