“You should not fear the world, but try to experience it as much as you can,” Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences Brian Hesse said.
Between studying abroad and leading safaris in Africa, Hesse has seen more of the world in the last 20 years than many people do in their lifetimes.
Hesse’s beginning was not quite as big. He grew up in a rural Kansas town called Paxico. He went to a centralized high school and across five towns, he still only had 35 in his graduating class.
Hesse is the youngest child behind two sisters, causing him to realize pretty early on in life “teenage girls are some of the meanest people in the world.”
“They would get into fights where they might use the cord of a curling iron to hit each other,” Hesse said. “There was no way I was getting in the middle of that stuff, so I would escape outside.”
The Flint Mountains were just outside his house, and he spent hours outside exploring.
“I just really love grass. I am happy there,” Hesse said.
Hesse began his educational career at Kansas State University.
“I was one of the first in my family to actually go to college,” Hesse said. “I knew no one who knew how to navigate a college environment, because no one had been there before me. They asked me a lot of questions, like what my major was, and I didn’t even know what my options were.”
Luckily, several people took Hesse in and showed him how to make the transition to college.
It was through K-State that Hesse first went to Africa. He signed up to study abroad for a year in Tanzania.
“I was 20 years old and had never been out of the United States. I told my parents I signed up, then I sold two motorcycles that I fixed up to buy my plane ticket and off I went,” Hesse said.
Hesse admits he did not really know what to expect. He brought $300 with him to try and live on for the year. Luckily, his parents were able to put money into an account for him to have access to.
Originally, Hesse was going to study foreign services and work for the state. However, after seeing how certain diplomats operated while in Tanzania, he switched gears to teaching.
“I was under the impression that they rarely get out and about amongst the people,” Hesse said. “They would operate in isolated environments and never experienced the country.”
Hesse received a scholarship to study in London where he got his master’s and PhD degrees. This was the beginning of Hesse’s journey to teaching and guiding in Africa.
“I love learning, and the best way to learn is by teaching,” Hesse said. “The 9-month contract I have to teach at Northwest allows me to spend my summers doing my ecological passions in Africa.”
Hesse owns a company called Cowabunga Safaris. He leads photographic trips through various countries.
“1998 was the year I led my first safari in Africa. Most people, when they sign up, want a wildlife-oriented experience,” Hesse said. “They have national geographic type images in their head, and you can get that. When I went to Africa, I went for the animals, but it was everything else that hooked me.”
As part of his personal philosophy, Hesse does not count the number of safaris he has been on.
“When people sign on with me to go on a safari, it is typically their first safari. I want to look at it that way,” Hesse said. “This is a first and potentially last experience for them and me. If I start ticking it off, it speaks to other experiences rather than the experience I was in right then.”
On each safari, tourists visit different areas and main attractions in Africa, but a majority of their trip is spent visiting villages and living amongst the people.
“People will get ready to leave and say ‘Well, we are off to the real world.’ I just get to remind them they are going back to the artificial world, the world with artificial light cycles and artificial climate control,” Hesse said.
While in Africa, most people get on a natural rhythm. They wake up when the sun comes up and fall asleep shortly after it goes down. Hesse says people are more in tune with the natural world around them.
Despite his many trips to Africa, there is always one thing that continues to take Hesse’s breath away.
“I am in awe of the wildebeest migration in the Serengeti. The Serengeti is my place,” Hesse said.
In the Serengeti, there is an abundance of wildlife. Elephants, giraffes and zebras are common sights.
“The sound, the smell and the scene is just awe-inspiring. There used to be several migrations like the wildebeests’ in the world. This is the last true migration on Earth. To be able to see that over again is humbling. Each time I see it is like the first time,” Hesse said.
Outside of Africa, Hesse lives with his wife and two daughters, Amelia and Elaina.
“Hands down, the happiest day of my life is when I got married to my wife,” Hesse said.
The two were high school sweethearts and dated for many years before getting married.
“The wedding was at her parents’ house with a small group of family and friends,” Hesse said. “It was outside on a beautiful June day. It was the most carefree joy that I have ever experienced.”
It is well-known that this was Hesse’s happiest moment. His children tease him about it not being the day of their birth.
“That is a different kind of joy, because it comes with so many responsibilities,” Hesse said. “I have to care for this person and nurture them. My wedding day was all about me and my wife.”
Elaina and Amelia have been to Africa as well. The first time the two made the journey was in 2014 and Hesse plans on taking them back in 2018.
“They saw things that are impressive in their own right, but it was also humbling to see how a lot of people live compared to how Americans live,” Hesse said. “It gave them a sense of gratitude that might not have happened otherwise.”
Hesse’s children were not only able to see how small they were compared to large animals, but they also saw how different their lives were compared to the children in Africa.
“Kids their age in Africa will have to walk a mile with a bucket for water, while we are able to just turn on the tap without much effort,” Hesse said.
Africa plays a major role in Hesse’s life. Because of this, when money was embezzled from his company, Hesse was sent into one of his lowest points.
“It wasn’t like my family was going to starve as a consequence. I have a wonderful job at Northwest and my wife has her job. My family was going to survive,” Hesse said.
A lot of the problem was Hesse’s sense of responsibility. Cowabunga Safaris was started in 1974 and the man entrusted his company to Hesse.
“Someone brought this company into being, nurtured it and entrusted me with it. Then on my watch, something happened that could cause the whole thing to go away,” Hesse said. “It weighed on me heavily.”
Hesse’s family might not have been put into a tough position if the company went under, but other families would not be so lucky.
“Cowabunga helps families and sends kids to school. When I hire someone to be a cook, I pay them so they can use that money for their families for school or medicines. Even if this money wasn’t going to sink my family, it could have sunk the ones of the people who work for me,” Hesse said.
Despite the stress, Hesse acknowledges good things came out of this experience. He now has closer relationships with many of the people who work for him because they had to come together to problem solve.
“As a Christian, I hear that often, in times of trials, you realize the importance of faith and you might see God’s hand in ways you would have missed before,” Hesse said.
The case is still ongoing. The criminals are on trial, but being 4,000 miles away makes it challenging.
Despite the struggles happening overseas, Hesse is still having a major impact on students at Northwest. Junior Mariah Jones worked with Hesse as his Supplemental Instructor for several years.
“I feel incredibly privileged to have the opportunity to work with him,” Jones said. “I have an immense amount of respect for him and highly value him highly as a mentor in my life.”
Jones says his passions and commitment to students is evident in the way he conducts himself and his classroom everyday.
“He wants to challenge students in a way that helps them grow and better understand the world around them, not only as students, but on a personal level as well,” Jones said.
Jones also offers an accurate description of who he is as a person.
“He is a tall white guy who loves Africa,” Jones said. “On a more serious note, he is one of the most interesting, intelligent and inspiring people you will ever have the pleasure of talking to.”
Most of all, Hesse wants to emphasize the importance of traveling and getting out of comfort zones.
“It is easy to be comfortable, but when you make yourself uncomfortable that is when you see the best in yourself and other people,” Hesse said. “Sometimes you just have to make yourself vulnerable.”