Communication Professor Recalls Paths to Personal Success


This Women's History Month, UTRGV recognizes Dr. Aje-Ori Agbese, an associate professor of Communication, whose roads led her from Nigeria to The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley where she teaches courses on reporting, writing for mass media, communication theory, and other topics. (UTRGV Photo by Paul Chouy)
This Women’s History Month, UTRGV recognizes Dr. Aje-Ori Agbese, an associate professor of Communication, whose roads led her from Nigeria to The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley where she teaches courses on reporting, writing for mass media, communication theory, and other topics. (UTRGV Photo by Paul Chouy)
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Texas Border Business

By Santana Peralez

EDINBURG, Texas – No matter which roads you choose in life, a guiding force might be leading you where you are meant to be.

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That was the case for Dr. Aje-Ori Agbese who says her roads led her from Nigeria to The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Now an associate professor of Communication at UTRGV, Agbese found herself in the Rio Grande Valley in 2006 when she began working at a UTRGV legacy institution, UT Pan American.

“God doesn’t take me places where he doesn’t have a plan for me,” she said. “I fell in love with this place because it was very much like home. The Valley is one of those places that has a lot to offer, and if you just keep your eyes open, you’ll see it.”

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Agbese grew up in Nigeria with family members who worked in mass media. Her father is a journalist and author. One of her uncles was a television producer, and an aunt worked with the Nigerian Television Authority. Her first brush with the field of mass communication came when she was just 6 years old and was invited to be a guest on a radio show.

“They needed a child to come in and talk with an adult, one-on-one, and just have a conversation on the show,” Agbese said. “In those days, I could never shut up. I was everywhere. When the lady who was the host of the show met me, she figured ‘I want that one.’”

But before deciding to follow in her family’s mass communication footsteps, she had several career possibilities in mind – including taking the veil as a nun and pursuing a degree in either medicine or law.

“My first semester of college, I actually had to take a law class,” she said. “And during this class, the professor told us that if we have a client who tells us they did something bad, our job was still to represent them to the best of our ability.”

So Agbese left law behind, as she could not bring herself to represent a guilty party. She wanted to help people find justice.

That’s when Agbese decided it was time to pursue a degree in mass communication from the University of Lagos in Nigeria.

She graduated with bachelor’s degree in mass communication in 1996, and after completing her undergraduate degree, Agbese said, she was ready to start a career and get married. However, in Nigeria, graduates are expected to serve the country for a year, in the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). The corps helps graduates decide what they want to do in their career and get to know the country and its people.

Agbese said she wanted to join the corps but her father – who had earned a graduate degree in the United States – wanted her to attend graduate school in the United States. 

“The belief in my culture is that the first child paves the way for the other children,” Agbese said. “When I finished my undergraduate degree, my father said, ‘When you’re done with this you’re going to America because your uncle is there.’”

But she was not ready for graduate school and wanted to complete her national service. It was a hot topic between them for quite a while, she said. So, she asked for some Divine intervention.

“I knelt and I said, ‘God, I really want to go for national service. I don’t want to go for graduate school,’” she said. “If you let me go for national service, I promise, even if I’m accepted into graduate school and I have to go, I will not complain. I will not say a single word. I will get on the plane and I will go.’”

As she threw that out into the universe, she applied to graduate school. And through luck or perhaps even Divine intervention, her application somehow got lost. It was too late for her to start the application process again. Agbese’s prayers were answered and she spent a year with the NYSC.

And that application to graduate school? Well, it was found a month before her time with the NYSC was over.

Agbese eventually found herself on a flight headed to the United States, where she would attend the University of Northern Iowa and earn a master’s degree in Communication Studies in 2000. Next came a Ph.D. in Communication Studies four years later, from Bowling Green University.

While working on her doctorate, she realized that there was a niche no one was touching on – African women in mass media, she said.

“Nobody was talking about us,” Agbese said. “When you talk about African women, usually everyone thinks we’re this monolithic structure – we’re all a certain shape or certain color, a certain this, a certain that. Nobody was talking about how our voices were represented. Nobody was talking about our stories.”

Knowing your roots and where you come from can be empowering, she said, so she set out to telling their stories and celebrating the different roles African and Nigerian women play in society. 

“It’s something we should celebrate. We should tell these stories to our daughters, and we should tell these stories to our sons. We should tell everyone how we were before colonization,” she said. “In neo-colonization we still have this mentality, this patriarchal belief, that women aren’t worth anything in African societies. And that has to change.”

She has published and been featured in various works on the topic of African women, Nigerian women in particular. Last September, she was featured as a guest in an episodeof the podcast, “Notes from America with Kai Wright,” discussing “The Woman King.”

HOME AWAY FROM HOME

Since coming to the Rio Grande Valley, Agbese has created a home away from home at UTRGV, where she teaches courses on reporting, writing for mass media, and communication theory, among other topics.

She has earned several accolades, including the 2012 UT System Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award – tenured/tenure track, the 2014 College Excellence Award in Teaching, and was recognized as one of the Top 25 Women Professors in Texas in 2013.

She also is the recipient of a number of grants, scholarships and research fellowships, including a recent fellowship under the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program, for which Agbese will return to Nigeria this summer to work with the Pan Atlantic University’s Nollywood Center.

For Agbese, taking the path forward led her to a home and life she has built for herself and her own family across the globe. Her path has guided her to becoming a mother, earning multiple degrees, and a career at UTRGV.

Agbese said, “I’m grateful for all I’ve been able to achieve. And it’s not easy, by any means, but I’m grateful that my hard work pays off.”

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