From Red China to read at USF

In his 31 years as a professor of international studies at USF, he has helped numerous students become diplomats and intelligence analysts, written three books and has enjoyed every step of the way.

Harvey Nelsen is said to be a man who loves his work. He was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow as a college graduate, a distinction given only to those who aspire to be college professors. But his degree led him to the Defense Intelligence Agency where he investigated China as an intelligence analyst during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

“I was fortunate to be hired during a tumultuous time in China — the Cultural Revolution. It was really exciting work. I was writing and learning things every single day, and I found myself as a world authority on the Chinese military after a short period of time. I would brief the Joint Chiefs of Staff daily — pretty exciting work for a man in his 20s,” Nelsen said.

“When the Redguards came to a crashing end in 1968, security tightened in China and the information flow slowed to a trickle. So I decided that was the right time to go back to school and earn my Ph.D.”

Nelsen’s background as an expert on China blended well with his career as a professor in the USF International Studies Department teaching about modern China and international political cultures. During his tenure, he has written a book about China using Chinese language sources, a book on the politics between China and the United States and an international political cultures text that he recently delayed publishing because of demands made by his publisher.

“The publisher insisted that I sell 200 copies in a year to my students, so I broke the contract,” he said.

Nelsen said he kept the students’ interests in mind and wanted to keep his class size small. The textbook is on reserve at the Library for now at the request of his students, he said.

Through the years, many of his students have gone on to become successful diplomats. One of these former students is Zachary Teich, who graduated in 1976 with a degree in political science and is now deputy U.S. Secretary of State for East Africa.

“I knew Harvey (Nelsen) very well as professor, mentor and tennis buddy, and we’re friends to this day,” Teich said in an e-mail interview. “As a tennis player, Harvey’s height and surprising agility for a big man made him almost impossible to beat when he came to net.

“He was tough to beat as a professor, too — his knowledge of every course he taught (and I took several) was exhaustive. But it was the way he handled himself in the classroom that really influenced me. He challenged his students to take and defend positions and to draw lessons and implications from the events we studied. The way he taught about modern China, for example, made the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution come alive,” Teich said.

Current students also claim that Nelsen’s classes are both entertaining and enriching.

“His straightforward teaching style gives his students the information to form their own ideas and theories and provides a free atmosphere in which to express them. Dr. Nelsen is always willing to provide career advice from his own experience and has encouraged me,” said international studies student Elizabeth Karampelas.

John Miaso, a student in Nelsen’s senior seminar, agrees.

“Dr. Nelsen was the first person I spoke to last year about the program, as he was academic adviser at the time. I appreciated his openness about the program and his enthusiasm about it, and so I immediately registered for international studies and haven’t looked back. He is very friendly with the students and has a relaxed lecture. He’ll sometimes go off into an interesting story about his trips abroad.”

Nelsen has traveled extensively, especially in China, where he has visited every region except Manchuria, the Gobi Desert and Tibet. He frequently uses anecdotes to bring life to his discussions of China.

“One striking memory was staying at a four-star luxury hotel one night in one of the many cosmopolitan and bustling Chinese cities, and then taking a bus into the countryside the next day where I saw a village ‘dentist’ pulling a tooth with electricians pliers. This was a village market day, so the dentist had set up an outside stall along with the knife sharpeners, fortunetellers and various purveyors of merchandise. The victim was held down in a folding chair with one arm of the dentist wrapped tightly around (his or her) neck. I couldn’t identify the sex of the tortured facial features. The other hand worked the big, clumsy pliers inside the mouth. The gap between urban wealth and village poverty is incredibly striking in China today,” he said.

Nelsen said his most rewarding role is student adviser. He was honored by USF for outstanding student advising in 1996.

“As an academic adviser you can really help (students) out concretely by finding them internships and helping them find graduate schools. As a professor, sometimes I find it hard on the ego when a class does not do well on an exam. It is hard to tell if your message is really getting through. But sometimes you get letters like these,” he said, pulling out a copy of an e-mail from his creaky file cabinet.

“I am a former student of yours from about 12 years ago,” the letter read. “I am writing you because I wanted to let you know that you have made a profound impact upon my life and for that I am grateful. I do not expect that you would remember me, but you are someone that I will never forget.”

Nelsen turned a proud eye to the document, his 6-foot 4-inch frame looking even larger in his 8-foot by 14-foot office crammed with books, papers and 31 years of memories.