History Department
History Department

Normandy Scholar Program takes 22nd trip to WWII-related sites in Europe

NSP Class of 2011

The Normandy Scholars of 2011 culminated their semester-long study of World War II with a trip to related sites across Europe. “Life-changing” and “unforgettable” are two words that often come up when students describe their experience in the Normandy Scholar Program (NSP). The study abroad program, which combines a semester of coursework and culminates in a three-week trip to Europe, allows students to learn about an important period of history in a way that is both innovative and challenging.

American Cemetery Monument, Normandy, France; Photo by: Art Perez

American Cemetery Monument, Normandy, France; Photo by: Art Perez, NS '05

“Nothing brings history alive like discussing it with students on the spot where it took place,” says Professor Charters Wynn, the current director of the program. “It is extremely rewarding to teach, and learn from students, as we visit such sites as the Sachsenhausen concentration camp or the building where the Nazis surrendered to the Red Army. The intellectual and personal growth the program fosters has directly led to Normandy scholars’ success at some of the top graduate programs and law schools in the country. It has, in short, changed their lives — and mine.”

Blair McBride, a 2011 Normandy Scholar, states that the “Normandy Scholar Program was one of the most demanding and difficult experiences of my college career. It was also the most rewarding, exciting, and life altering.”

The Normandy Scholar Program (NSP) began in the fall of 1989. The Battle of Normandy Foundation, in conjunction with Governor Bill Clements, University of Texas President William Cunningham, and several years later, decorated veteran of the Normandy invasion and philanthropist Frank Denius, all worked to establish a program that would provide an opportunity for undergraduates to study the causes, conduct, consequences, and contemporary representations of the Second World War.

As of 1997, with the support of then Dean Sheldon Ekland-Olson, the running of the program was taken over by the College of Liberal Arts as a faculty-led study abroad program. Its administration was vested entirely in the Department of History as of 2004.

The current five faculty members of the program are Professors Judith Coffin, David Crew, Françoise De Backer, Michael Stoff, and Charters Wynn. Coffin teaches a course on modern France. Crew teaches a course on Germany during the Second World War. De Backer teaches a course on sites of memory and is the associate director and planning coordinator for the program. Stoff teaches a course on the United States and World War II. Wynn teaches the program’s course on Stalinist Russia.

Since 1989, 512 students and 16 faculty members from the Departments of English, French and Italian, Government, History, and the Center for American Military History have participated in the NSP. Students in the NSP come from all academic areas of the university, including architecture, biology, business, economics, fine arts, government, and radio/television/film.

NSP class of 2010 at monument for United States' 30th Infantry Division, on hilltop near Mortain, Normandy

NSP class of 2010 at monument for United States' 30th Infantry Division that fought with horrific loss of life, but successfully resisted the first large-scale German counter-attack after D-Day; hilltop near Mortain, Normandy; Photo by Nickie Tran, NS '10

Not surprisingly, about half are usually history majors, and many more end up history minors by the end of the program. As students need at least a 3.5 GPA to apply, many are also Plan II and Honors students. Former director Crew states that the NSP aims to recruit not only the “best and the brightest” of the University of Texas student body, but also those with “a keen interest in expanding their horizons.”

The intellectual rigor of the program makes recruiting students with proven academic ability a necessity. The NSP begins with five upper division classes in the spring semester aimed at providing students with “an intensive and comprehensive education in the history of World War II,” notes Crew.

Students attest that the coursework is both challenging and rewarding. Laura Bonahoom, a history major and 2011 Normandy Scholar, recalls that her professors joked that the program was a “writing bootcamp,” a description she found to be “incredibly true.”

Anna Harris, a 2009 Normandy Scholar, says that the hardest and best part of the coursework was a research paper assigned by Stoff. Harris notes that “Dr. Stoff grades very carefully, and his brutal honesty taught me how to write well … Stoff’s class was challenging, but invaluable to me in the long run.”

These courses are complemented with weekly film screenings to expose the students to classics like "Casablanca" (1942), as well as more modern films about the war, such as "Stalingrad" (1993) and "Flame and Citron" (2008). Normandy Scholars also attend regular guest lectures, including talks by veterans and a Holocaust survivor. This was, in fact, part of the allure of the program for Harris, who wanted to “get the straight story from people who experienced the war directly.”

Professor Jean-Pierre Cauvin, a former NSP faculty member and director, states: "Some of the most meaningful and moving experiences of the program have been the encounters with WWII veterans, Holocaust survivors, members of the Resistance, and witnesses to the events of the time. The extraordinary testimonials over the years of such WWII participants as Frank Denius, Angelos Chatas, Jack Maroney, Richard Kraemer, Winifred ("Wimpy") Smith, Bill Alexander, Wilmer Leroy Wilson, Delmiro Elizondo, Mike Jacobs, Jacqueline Péry (PDF, 216K), Jeannie de Clarens, and André Heintz will long resonate in the memory of those Scholars who were privileged to hear them and meet the persons who gave them. With the passing of time, such experiences will not be possible much longer."

At the end of the semester, as other students are preparing to take final exams, the Normandy Scholars are taken by the NSP faculty on a three-week trip to Normandy, Paris, London, and Berlin, to visit important historic sites and museums they studied about all semester long. It is in Europe that the instruction the scholars have received gains its full significance and becomes relevant, as they, in Crew’s words, “use the knowledge they already have gained to grasp what they are seeing, and being told about, but also to acquire the new knowledge that comes only from being ‘on the spot.’ Overall, then, this is an attempt to link the classroom with the real world.”

Paris, Place de la Concorde, May 24, 2009. (In the background: the Rue Royale and La Madeleine Church.) Photo by Prof. Jean-Pierre Cauvin

Paris, Place de la Concorde, May 24, 2009. (In the background: the Rue Royale and La Madeleine Church.) Photo by Prof. Jean-Pierre Cauvin

Not surprisingly NSP alumni often recall the trip abroad as the highlight of the program. Tarik Harris, a 2011 Normandy Scholar and history major, reported that the ability to “actually stand at the places where history had been made gave us an opportunity to learn in a way that a simple classroom course cannot replicate.”

While students fondly recall the time they spent visiting museums, cooking dinner together, and playing soccer and capturing the flag in the fields of Normandy, invariably the most meaningful moments of the trip are those spent at sites of memory, such as the cemeteries devoted to the war dead. It is at these sites that the true cost of war is brought home to many of the students. 

Addressing Frank Denius at a luncheon after the program, Katherine Jordan, a 2009 Normandy Scholar said, “When I left for Europe, the professors made sure that I had a pretty keen idea of what the war was all about. There were times during the semester where it just overwhelmed me, but it was not until I got to the continent and stood on the same ground as the soldiers that I realized how terrifying this war had been. I know now the difference between learning and understanding.”

The emotions raised by some sites are part of such understanding. Karen Grumberg, a 1996 Normandy Scholar, notes that the visit to the German war cemetery was difficult for many of the students: “We just didn’t feel equipped to deal with it. But perhaps that was the point.” Harris recalls that walking along the beaches at Normandy and seeing at the American cemetery “the vast number of white crosses, each representing an American life that was taken, brought tears to my eyes.”

For De Backer this transition from learning to understanding defines the powerful impact of the Normandy program. "When our students get to Europe after 14 weeks of intense work, they experience the landscape and the culture around them, the historical sites, museums and monuments with a critical eye," she says. "They know the facts behind the story being told, they possess the knowledge to evaluate how the past is narrated from spatial staging to the choice of words and images. They raise pertinent questions about which events are emphasized and note the silences. From one country to the other, they measure the impact of the present on the representations of the past."

Over the past 23 years, there have been many changes in the Normandy Scholar Program. The main change is the broadening of focus, both in class and with the sites of history and memory visited in Europe. The program began as a way to help students remember the struggle and sacrifice of Americans during World War II, but it has expanded to include the wartime experiences of civilians as well as soldiers, and includes the historical perspectives of England, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union.

The 2008 Normandy Scholars with French Resistance activist and Ravensbrück Concentration Camp survivor Jeannie de Clarens in Paris.

The 2008 Normandy Scholars with French Resistance activist and Ravensbrück Concentration Camp survivor Jeannie de Clarens in Paris.

Whereas students used to travel only to Paris and Normandy, they now visit London and Berlin as well, and the faculty hope to include a trip to Poland in the near future. There has also been more emphasis in recent years on the experience of the Pacific War, which Stoff covers in his course, though including any sites of the Pacific theater during the students’ travel abroad would be difficult for logistical reasons. Still, Stoff hopes that a scholar of Japanese history may be added to the NSP faculty in the future, to provide a better sense of World War II as a truly global conflict. 

Crew reports that many of the alumni still keep in touch, and have been profoundly altered by their experience in the NSP. The rigor of the academic program, the opportunity to meet firsthand witnesses to the war, and the expanding influence of the trip to Europe all contribute to provide graduates with an experience they will never forget, and one which will shape their lives for years to come.

Testimonials written by students attest to Crew’s academic goal for the program. Dylan Rebstock, a 2010 Normandy Scholar and history major, remembers the NSP as “everything I wanted to get out of college but condensed into a single semester. I learned from the top professors, I made life long friends, and I traveled to places I had only read about.”

Eunki Hong, class of 2009 and a double major in biology and history, wrote, "For me, the NSP has established a strong foundation of modern Western culture and history. It not only encouraged excellence in scholarship, but also cooperation and friendship, which continues to be so important amidst globalization.”

History and government major Nolan Oldham says, "Normandy Scholars 2011 really opened my eyes to the ways in which history affects our world today. The professors, the courses, and the friends you make are what set this program apart from any other you'll ever experience.”

Kate Kreager, class of 2011 and a Plan II Honors Program student, wrote, “We hiked about a two-hour walk across Omaha Beach and up the bluff to the American cemetery…. Each of us was given a yellow rose to place at the grave of a fallen soldier…. I was not expecting the experience to be so moving. It was overwhelming to walk through the rows of white crosses and Stars of David.”

“The greatest benefit of the Normandy Scholar Program is its structure — four different national perspectives on World War II. This intense focus on a single historical period resulted in students interacting with the course material at a depth which none of us had ever experienced before,” noted Noah Jaffe, Normandy Scholar of 2010 and history and government major.

“I got to know myself better and realize what potential I truly hold,” wrote Nathan McCray, history major and class of 2007.

Physics/pre-law major and alumnus of 2007, Jiyeon Choi, wrote, "The most amazing experiences that I had in NSP were meeting unbelievably great people who touched me deeply; French resistance women, a D-Day invasion soldier, Holocaust survivors, not to mention, five wonderful professors, 19 students, and NSP administrators."

"The greatest thing about this program is its scope. You never stop learning, both about the history and about yourself," wrote Chris Connolly, human biology (pre-med) major and class of 2008.

Mary Katherine Vigness, NS 2007, a double major in history and theatre and dance, wrote, “The high expectations had a very positive influence on my overall experience. I am currently in law school, which is something that I had never considered prior to the program. I did not have the confidence or determination to pursue intellectual endeavors, and NSP showed me that I could do it and succeed.”

Elissa Sloan who was an undeclared major at the time of her participation in the program in 2007, but ended it as a history major, wrote, “I see now that many parts of our culture and others are interconnected and overlap; that the relationships we forge, creates a kind of history; that the personalities of the people running the countries has a high impact on the views of the citizens.”

"I love every single one of you. I will always remember this.... It has changed the way I write, the way I think and the way I live my life. Thank you," wrote Art Perez, class of 2005 and a radio/TV/film major.

"I endured the hardest semester of my life with the closest friends I’ve made in college, and followed it with the greatest trip of my life with my favorite humans who happen to be professors. This has been a turning point not only in my academic career, but in my growth as a person," Derek Davidson, history major and 2005 alumnus, wrote.

Harris recalls that the NSP made her “fall in love with history,” and credits her experience in the program with her decision to major in history at UT. For Karen Grumberg, the NSP professors inspired her to become a professor herself. Receiving a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of California at Los Angeles in 2004, Grumberg is now an associate professor of modern Hebrew literature in UT’s Department of Middle Eastern Studies.

Denius continues to be a stalwart supporter of the NSP. Recently, the Cain Foundation, of which he is president, provided a generous donation, which will enable the NSP to move into its own space in the new Liberal Arts Building, scheduled for completion in early 2013. Whatever the venue, its position as a vital part of the education offered by the History Department remains steadfast.

The NSP faculty and the Department of History wish to express its gratitude to the following for their generous financial support and in Denius’ case his direct participation in the program: The Frank Denius Normandy Scholars Endowment, Derek Jon Schaver Scholarship, Thad W. Riker Scholarship in History, America’s Turning Point Endowment, the College of Liberal Arts, and numerous individuals.

For more scholars’ testimonials, please visit the program’s overview page.

Story by: Sarah Steinbock-Pratt, History Department doctoral candidate
Contributor: Martha-Gail Moore, web content manager
Banner caption: NSP Class of 2011 in front of Westminster Abbey, London
Banner graphic by: Ashley Solano, Student Technology Assistant for Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services
NSP logo by: Victoria Osborne, NS '96