November 14, 2022

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Dr. Aggrey Otieno

New social media professor excited for future at Utah State
 Kate Peterson, writer 

The office of Dr. Aggrey Otieno at Utah State University overlooks Cache Valley, filled with bright light from the sun shining through its floor to ceiling windows. Inside however, it is mostly empty with beige walls and cabinets, a few books on a shelf and one painting on the desk.

Otieno has been in Logan since July 2022, which could be the reason his office is not filled to the brim with the mementos you often find in a professor’s office.

He and his wife, Ruth, grew up in one of the biggest slum dwellings in Nairobi, Kenya. Nairobi is one of the biggest cities in Africa with more than 4 million people and a national park within the city, which is famous for its safaris. They now reside in Logan, Utah, with their three children.

Logan doesn’t have safaris, but it does have towering mountains and 54,000 people. That is quite the change, so how did Otieno end up at USU? He was hired as an assistant professor in USU’s Journalism and Communication department where he heads the social media emphasis. Aggrey, pronounced Ag-ree, explains how to pronounce his name by telling students, in an African accent, that if he is hungry, they can call him “Hangry.”

His jokes and big, bright smile capture students’ attention as he lectures.

Ruth Shabaya, Otieno's wife and the general manager of the University Inn at USU, said he is “patient, detail oriented, compassionate, a good listener and has a humble nature.”

The journalism and communication department head at Utah State University, Susan Polster, agreed with Ruth, saying, “He has over 18 years of work experience championing social change in Africa and the United States, especially in child protection, promotion of social justice and health.”

Kara Tim, Otieno’s teacher’s assistant for his communication research methods class, said, “He has more experience than almost anyone I’ve worked with. He's been in the field, he knows how to do that type of research as opposed to just teaching it. He makes sure that the students are out in the field and they're not just taking tests and quizzes.”

Otieno said he plans to develop a social media certificate at USU, continue with his research, and get funds to establish a social media analytics lab where students will be exposed to social media analytics software programs for research projects.

He said these programs will train students how to understand and use data from social media. He plans to include students in the projects he has been working on around the world, providing mentorship and hands-on experience. He hopes to start a study abroad program, allowing students to visit and work in different parts of the world.

Tim said the addition of Otieno to the department will be a step forward for the journalism program to have someone with great experience and meshes well with the other professors.

Polster added, “He is the best choice for the social media emphasis because his academic interests are around the intersections of under-represented communities, race, technology, social justice, media innovation and activism with a focus on societal and global challenges.”

Shabaya said with Otieno's work, he merges all the things he is passionate about, such as academia, and journalism and addressing social issues.

“One of the things that really makes me excited about projects is when they are really impactful. You see the way you teach students and they understand concepts. It’s the same way when you design projects for behavior change, and you see people really benefiting from those projects,” Otieno said.

For many, social media is all about promoting themselves, getting “likes” and money. Not for Otieno. He uses it as a tool to enhance and improve lives around the world. He is passionate about helping and serving others. He uses data from research and social media analytics to influence behavior changes in people, and is making an impact around the world.

“Almost 4 billion people have access to various social media platforms, so this is a huge audience that people cannot ignore,” Otieno said.

Polster said, “He uses data and analytics to understand the effects of new media on society and organizations. He uses the online environments and user-generated content to influence change in attitude, opinions, perceptions, and behavior in child protection, health, race, civic activism and politics.”

Originally, he didn’t want to leave Kenya to go to school, but received a scholarship from the Ford Foundation and came to the United States to attend Ohio University.

After receiving his master’s and doctorate degrees, he worked on many projects and earned many awards for his service throughout the world. His work includes a project for Chagas’ disease in Ecuador, multiple projects on child trafficking across the African continent, creating scholarships for girls in Kenya to attend school, as well as projects in Europe and the United States. He has also worked with nongovernmental organizations. Otieno is focusing on the impact that his work is making.

“It really is an honor to know and work with somebody as accomplished as him,” Tim said.

When Otieno is not working, he travels and spends time with his family. He said he loves soccer and enjoys watching his son play football. “One of the things that I’ve learned over the years is to love my kid's hobbies. Their hobbies are my hobbies.” Shabaya said, “At home he does not lead by shouting and giving commands. He is subtle, yet very assertive.”

Even though the Otieno family has been in Logan for a short time, they said they love living here because it is a relaxed place with warm and friendly people.

“Students here are usually very engaged. That is one thing that all professors usually like,” Otieno said. His wife said, “I would say it's a lovely place to raise up the kids, which is number one. So, we love it.”