With a class style focused upon a self-described “tough dad” method of teaching, it is not farfetched to say that Dr. Sam Mustafa, professor of history, has the respect of a seasoned general. In fact, the description might be fitting, as Mustafa – who has been teaching at Ramapo College for 14 years – happens to teach military history, among other classes.
That respect was evident last Wednesday, when Mustafa was presented with the Henry Bischoff Award for excellence in teaching, not only for his classroom style, but for the care and time he affords his students.
“Dr. Mustafa is an amazing professor because he knows how to connect with his students and make them interested in what he is saying,” said Emily Wisneski, a sophomore enrolled in Mustafa’s World Civilizations I class. “Even students who are not interested in history find his class entertaining because of the way he explains topics and involves students in class discussions.”
Currently writing his fourth book on the Napoleonic Era, Mustafa’s interests as a scholar and a professor vary greatly: this semester alone he can be found teaching World Civilization I, an Advanced Survey of Military History and, for the first time, an introductory class to the German language.
“I think he’d do it for free,” said Jeremy Teigen, professor of political science and previous recipient of the Bischoff Award, testifying to Mustafa’s passion for teaching.
Initially receiving his undergraduate degree in education with a focus on history, he struggled to find a job as a high school teacher for two years. Giving up, he turned to business early in his career.
“I was actually kind of good at it. By the age of 29, I was running three car dealerships, and only this past year did I earn the same money I made back when I was 29 — and that was in Virginia in the '90s,” Mustafa said, “but I hated it. I hated every minute of it. I mean I was making crazy money. I had a sports car, I had Pierre Cardin suits, but I hated it. I woke up every morning, just dreading that shaving mirror and thinking, I’m going to be no smarter by the end of the day than the beginning of it, I’m not going to make anyone else any smarter — I will make nothing but some money for me and my boss. There was zero connection to my soul or my spirit.”
It was only after some friends convinced him to go back to school that Mustafa earned his PhD in history from the University of Tennessee.
“If he could do anything, I think he’d do the same thing over with his life because he loves teaching. His students testify to this, but it’s so evident that being a professor is a big deal to Sam. It’s not something he takes lightly,” James Hoch, professor of creative writing and previous recipient of the Bischoff Award, said.
The majority of his teaching career has revolved around history, a subject he is personally drawn to, Mustafa said.
“I’m not a particularly spiritual person, but I do get a kind of a chill at the sense of the continuity of the human experience. When I’m at a very old place I feel the importance of the past. I like to see if I can get other people to open that channel of their minds, to think about the longevity of human experience,” he said.
This concept of the human experience is often made prevalent through his class discussions, which are well received by his students.
“I believe the discussions in Dr. Mustafa’s class allow us to think and engage with each other about historical events and people, and that makes the subject both interesting and understandable in a way that is not done in any other class,” Kahelia Afflik, a junior enrolled in both his military history and German class', said.
Although history has been his primary teaching interest, Mustafa began teaching the German language for the first time this semester.
“Much to my surprise — because it’s an astounding amount of work — I’m truly loving teaching German. I’ve never done two totally different pedagogies in the same semester before —i t’s not just lesson plans, it’s pedagogy. It’s two different approaches to how one teaches it — completely different kind of thinking about how to be a teacher — and man is it hard…but incredibly fun and rewarding. I think the atmosphere in the class is really positive.”
His students reflect this positive atmosphere.
“The man is literally a walking etymology, he is filled with a wealth of information that he consistently imparts on his students.” Karlito Almeda, a junior enrolled in Mustafa’s German 101 class, said. “Privileged to be talking a language course with the history professor, students learn the historical development of words and phrases in the German language in a way that we are able to visualize the many similarities in which Old English and Hochdeutsch share. Taking a course with Dr. Mustafa is similar to traversing the countries of the European continent.”
Broadening the breadth of his teaching ability, the extra work brought upon by the German class doesn’t seem to affect Mustafa’s passion for his job as a professor.
“It’s my vocation as well as my avocation. I do feel naturally drawn toward it, and I’d be unhappy if I weren’t doing it,” Mustafa said.