Dr. Aje-Ori Agbese is no stranger to cultural diversity. Growing up in Nigeria, a country with more than 250 ethnic groups and languages, Agbese learned to appreciate people from different walks of life and cultures.
Now as an associate professor of communication at The University of Texas-Pan American, Agbese has devoted herself to opening her students' eyes to the world around them, particularly through careers in communication, a passion they share.
Agbese, a former journalist, teaches several courses at UTPA, including culture and communication. She also designed a global media course where students learn about international media and mass communication and the career opportunities available to them on a global scale.
Her dedication to her students earned Agbese a coveted spot as a recipient of the 2012 Regents' Outstanding Teaching Awards. The prize is considered the University of Texas System Board Of Regents' highest honor. With a monetary award of $25,000, the reward is among the largest incentive in the nation for exceptional faculty performance, and six UTPA faculty members were chosen for the prestigious recognition.
The selection process for the Regents' Outstanding Teaching Awards is meticulous. Faculty members undergo a succession of rigorous evaluations by students, peer faculty and external reviewers. The review panels mull over a range of activities in their evaluations of a candidate's teaching performance, including classroom expertise, inventive course development and student learning outcomes.
"I am truly honored and happy. I am also glad because it proves hard work will be rewarded, no matter who you are or where you are from," Agbese said. "I am also a bit scared because it means I have to keep up the momentum, which is not that easy."
Momentum is another thing with which Agbese is familiar. Her father's career as a journalist led to her family moving throughout Nigeria while she was growing up. "I was fortunate to travel a lot while growing up, so my background is quite diverse," she said.
Agbese received her Bachelor of Science, with honors in mass communication from the University of Lagos, Nigeria. At her family's insistence, Agbese moved to the United States to continue her education.
"My father decided that I should attend graduate school in the United States. I said I would go if I was accepted into a program," Agbese said.
She received a master's degree, also in communication studies, from the University of Northern Iowa and later earned a doctorate with an emphasis in mass communication and intercultural communication from Bowling Green State University in 2004.
Agbese believes too many people have the wrong impression of Africa, and so has focused her research interests on Nigerian media history, African media and politics, intercultural communication, global mass media and women and the media. She has worked in a number of different capacities in public relations, journalism and social organizations in Nigeria and the U.S.
In her 2006 book, "The Role of the Press and Communication Technology in Democratization: The Nigerian Story," Agbese studied the role of the press in the country's return to democracy in 1999, highlighting the momentous opposition the Nigerian press faced - such as arrest, imprisonment and even death - in pushing for citizens to get involved in their government.
"My family was affected by the then military government's attitude to the press. My father and his colleagues were arrested and detained for a story they published. While in prison, his cell phone played a powerful role in his release," Agbese said. "So when I needed a topic for my dissertation, I decided to study how journalists used communication technology to return Nigeria to democracy in the 1990's. I was overjoyed to see ordinary people pursue democracy using the same tactics like Facebook and dating sites in North Africa last year."
Agbese joined UTPA's Department of Communication in Fall 2006 after two years at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I.
Dr. Dora Saavedra, a UTPA associate professor and adviser for communication studies, said Agbese deserves the Regents' recognition because she has a rare knack for expanding students' world views and weaving her own Nigerian culture and global perspective into her teaching.
"Dr. Agbese is an excellent professor whose knowledge, organizational skills and enthusiasm are to be commended. She conveys warmth, a wonderful sense of humor and a sincere concern for students. We are fortunate to have someone of Dr. Agbese's academic background and teaching competence in our department," Saavedra said.
Agbese's students agree she is a great asset to the University. Ernesto Palma, one of her former students, said the way she intertwined entertainment news and controversial legal cases in the classroom made the lessons stimulating, fresh and distinct.
"Dr. Agbese is an extraordinary and exemplary professor. When she spoke, the class listened because every word and assignment was designed to keep everyone engaged," said Palma. "She has patience and a unique style of teaching that would be successful anywhere."
Mauricio Israel Cuellar of Weslaco, another ex-student, said Agbese inspired him to be a better person.
"She encouraged me to pursue anything I wanted to pursue. Even when people doubted my abilities and even when I doubted them myself, she'd remind me how intelligent and hardworking I am," Cuellar said. "It's priceless to hear those words from someone you admire."
Humbled by the honor, Agbese said she is simply trying to make a difference in the lives of South Texas students.
"I believe they saw something worthy of recognition in my background," Agbese said. "I am not a perfect teacher, but I do my best to ensure that my students learn something from me. We have amazing teachers in my department and I am just glad to keep up the tradition."