November 14, 2022

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New social media professor excited for future at Utah State
By: Kate Peterson

The office of Aggrey Otieno at Utah State 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 only been in Logan since July, which could be the reason his office is not filled to the brim with the momentos you often find in a professor’s office. Otieno 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, with only 54,000 people. That is quite the change, so how did Aggrey Otieno end up at Utah State? Otieno was recently hired as an assistant professor in the journalism and communication department at Utah State University. He is heading the social media emphasis of the journalism major. 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 teaches. Ruth Otieno, Aggrey’s wife and the general manager of the University Inn at Utah State, said Aggrey is patient, detailoriented, compassionate, a good listener, and has a humble nature. The journalism and communication department head at Utah State University, Susan Polster, agreed with Ruth, and said, “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 Utah State, continue with his research, and get funds to establish a social media analytics lab where students will be exposed to various social media analytics software programs for various research projects. He said these programs will be used to train students how to understand and use data from social media. Otieno said he plans to include students in the projects he has been working on around the world, providing mentorship and hands on experience. Otieno said he hopes to start a study abroad program to allow 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 so much great experience and who meshes well with the other professors. “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,” Polster said. Ruth Otieno said with Aggrey’s work, he is able to merge together all the things he is passionate about, such as academia, 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 Aggrey 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.” Though he originally didn’t want to leave Kenya to go to school, Otieno received a scholarship from the Ford Foundation and came to the United States to attend Ohio University. After receiving his master’s and doctorate, he worked on many projects and has earned many awards for his service all over the world. Otieno’s 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 be able to attend school, as well as projects in Europe and the United States. He has also worked with various 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 Aggrey 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 kids’ hobbies. Their hobbies are my hobbies,” Aggrey Otieno said. Ruth Otieno said, “At home he does not lead by shouting and giving commands. He is subtle, yet very assertive.” Even though the Otieno family has only 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,” Aggrey Otieno said. Ruth Otieno said, “I would say it's a lovely place to raise up the kids, which is number one. So we love it.”