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‘He inspired me to have adventures’

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South African native Donald Rallis traveled the world, rolling his adventures into his UMW world geography courses.

South African native Donald Rallis traveled the world, rolling his adventures into his UMW world geography courses.

Twenty-three years and more than 6,000 students after teaching his first class, Donald Rallis—the University of Mary Washington’s resident world geography professor, travel enthusiast and proponent of social justice—was ready for a new adventure.

So Rallis, 55, who retired from UMW in December, set a course for the city of Phnom Penh in Cambodia.

There, he will be teaching Cambodian students at the American University of Phnom Penh, which according to its website is committed to offering Cambodians “quality and rigorous American-style education that prepares students . . . to be competitive in the global marketplace.”

As one of UMW’s world geographers, Rallis long specialized in the corner of the world he grew up in, Sub-Saharan Africa. He recently shifted his focus to Southeast Asia.

Rallis grew up in Johannesburg in apartheid South Africa. He said it wasn’t until he reached college that he realized the injustices of the system.

“As I often tell students, what you grow up with is what you see as normal,” he said. “Only as I grew older did I realize I lived in a very strange society. It’s easy to look back now and say, ‘How did people not see these evils?’ But privilege has an amazing ability to justify itself.”

So in 1982, at the age of 24, Rallis immigrated to the U.S. to avoid compulsory military service with the army protecting apartheid.

He went first to the University of Miami to complete graduate work, then to Penn State and Illinois State. But at those large institutions, he realized he didn’t want to teach 400 students at a time.

“It was absolutely not what I wanted to do,” he said. “That’s not teaching.”

When a job opened up at UMW in 1990, he jumped at the chance to teach smaller classes.

Since then, Rallis has pioneered online education and global awareness at UMW.

He’s currently writing a book called “Online Around the World: A Geographic Encyclopedia of the Internet, Social Media, and Mobile Apps,” about using technology to further geographic education.

He taught a world geography class in 2013 from a variety of locations around the world, including England, France and Rwanda, and said his live video feeds from 11 countries sparked conversations that students might not have had otherwise.

David Younes, 27, of Washington, D.C., took Rallis’ classes on Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia while a student at UMW.

Even though Younes was an international affairs major, he had heard about Rallis and wanted to take a class with him.

“It was how much he cared and how much he knew and his teaching style that made him so great,” Younes said. “He was like a partner in learning, always encouraging us to be curious.”

Younes, now a program analyst for the U.S. Department of the Treasury and graduate student in conflict resolution, called Rallis “the example of what it means to be a teacher.”

Rallis inspired Younes to join the Peace Corps after college, which took him to Ukraine. And after finishing his graduate degree, Younes and his wife plan to move overseas.

“He always had such an enthusiasm for travel and experiencing cultures,” he said. “That’s not what most Western tourists do. It’s an honest, genuine, natural approach to travel. He inspired me to have adventures.”

Throughout his time at UMW, Rallis was a proponent of travel and took groups of students to locations including Cambodia and his home country of South Africa.

On a trip to South Africa with students in 1998, Rallis and his class happened upon then-President Nelson Mandela. Rallis said the group was taking pictures outside of Mandela’s home in Johannesburg when the president rounded the street corner during an afternoon walk.

Mandela then invited the class to meet him.

“We lined up and he met each of us individually,” Rallis said. “That’s the kind of person he was. There was nothing in it for him. There was no press, and we could not vote for him. He’s the kind of person who, when invited to a dinner, would go into the kitchen and thank the staff for the meal.”

For years, a poster of Mandela hung in Rallis’ office, a souvenir of a trip to South Africa in 1994, during the presidential election Mandela would win.

“He was a very decent human being and a humble person,” Rallis said.

Rallis was in Johannesburg visiting his mother when Mandela died on Dec. 5.

“I have never felt more South African,” he said. “Everyone felt a sense of loss.”

Rallis brought the sense of social justice championed by Mandela to UMW, where he was an outspoken advocate for spousal equivalency benefits and LGBT rights. He wrote op-ed pieces in the university’s newspaper, The Bullet, about the importance of expanding health insurance to homosexual spouses and stood up for homosexual members of the campus.

William B. Crawley’s “A Centennial History” of UMW describes the anti-gay sentiment on the campus during the early ’90s and Rallis’ stand against it.

“The most dramatic event in the bouleversement surrounding sexual orientation on campus arrived in early 1993 with the coming out of geography professor Donald Rallis,” Crawley wrote.

The establishment of the Clinton administration’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” prompted Rallis to write another op-ed in The Bullet speaking out against the policy.

“I am gay, and I am angry,” he wrote. “I am angry because I and millions of other gay men and lesbians have been repeatedly maligned and insulted in the ongoing debate over our admission to the armed forces.”

The piece inspired a forum on equality in Dodd Auditorium that packed the hall past its 1,300-person capacity.

Rallis also vehemently defended foreign language programs that were cut during the 1980s and 1990s, saying eliminating programs such as Russian would cast doubt on the college’s commitment to globalization in the curriculum. Rallis said during his time at UMW, the school changed from a socially and politically conservative institution to become more politically active and progressive. He said the campus is also more globally aware, which is evident through the number of study abroad programs that have come on board in the last decade.

However, he said UMW has throughout his time retained a diversity problem.

“That is one of the ways it has not changed as much as I’d hoped,” he said. “They have a long way to go until UMW is a reflection of Virginia, or the U.S. as a whole. That goes for the student body and the faculty.”

In a piece distributed through UMW’s faculty newsletter and its geography website, Rallis’ fellow geography professor Steve Hanna said his “character and accomplishments deserve notice” on his retirement from UMW.

“In all of his classes, he asked students to understand that overcoming political, social and economic injustice required both perseverance and the acquisition of knowledge,” Hanna wrote. “At the same time, his students learned that geography provides an approach to obtaining that knowledge.”

Jacqueline Gallagher, associate professor of geography at UMW, has worked with Rallis since she began teaching there in 2006 and called him “super to work with, incredibly polite and thoughtful, happy to fit into everyone’s schedule, available even if he was traveling.”

Gallagher said when hiring a new geographer, the department will look for someone who is broadly trained and traveled like Rallis, but the real challenge in replacing him will be finding a similar teaching personality.

“One of our concerns is that we hire an excellent teacher—I cannot count how many students have told me that they declared geography as a major because of an introductory course they took with Donald,” she said.

Rallis said it is time to take that style of education to Southeast Asia, which is home to fascinating geography, as well as a rapidly changing population that has a need for more options in higher education.

“The bottom line, though, is that I really like it here,” he said.


Donald Rallis’ geography blog is frequently used by geography professors and students as a resource. In his online presence, Rallis posts reflections and analyses of the parts of the world he visits, as well as videos displaying cultures from around the globe.

In a recent post, Rallis included videos of South Africans mourning Nelson Mandela.

“I try to capture some of the remarkable sights and sounds of sadness and joy I witnessed,” he said.

Find him at

Lindley Estes: 540/735-1976