Ambassador Tibor Nagy Reflects on Life of Diplomacy, Academia

(VIDEO) Nagy, the Vice Provost for International Affairs, will retire from Texas Tech University this month.

This semester, as Ambassador Tibor Nagy prepares for retirement from the Office of International Affairs (OIA) at Texas Tech University, he can trace his dream of being a diplomat back to a childhood memory when he was just 7 years old.

After fleeing from Hungary with his father at the end of the Hungarian Revolution in November 1956, the pair ended up in Austria. Nine months later, they were on their way to America.

Tibor Nagy

Tibor Nagy

“In 1957, it was the U.S. Embassy in Vienna that processed us as refugees,” said Nagy, the Vice Provost of International Affairs. “I didn’t know what America was, I didn’t know what an embassy was, but I knew those folks were so nice and decent to us, that I said, ‘If I ever make it to America, my dream is to become a U.S. diplomat just like those people.’”

They made it, and Nagy and his father began their life in the United States in Washington, D.C., where he learned English and became acclimated to life in the country. After searching for an affordable school with a good reputation, he came to Texas Tech and graduated with his bachelor’s degree during the summer of 1972. He returned to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the federal government and completed a master’s degree at George Washington University in 1978. Within a year of his graduation, he received his first overseas assignment in Africa, where he would spend 20 years in various positions around the continent.

Now, after more than 32 years of government work and 15 years in academia, Nagy said coming to Texas Tech was a big factor in achieving his goals. 

“Some dreams do come true, and Texas Tech certainly was instrumental in allowing me to get there,” Nagy said.

Getting his start at Texas Tech

When Nagy arrived as a student at Texas Tech in 1966, he knew he would be working his way through college.

“I delivered chicken, I delivered flowers, I worked in a grocery store and finally, after six years, I finished the four-year degree plan,” he recalls. “I actually graduated during the summer, the second summer semester, after I took golf for one hour of physical education so I could graduate.”

Like many of the seemingly random things in his life, that one hour-class came in handy.

“I thought it was a total waste of time until I get to Zambia and they say, ‘You know, to be an effective diplomat, you’re going to have to join the golf club,’” Nagy said. “We did a lot of business in Africa on the golf course. The only downside is that after you finish your game, you have to go back to the embassy and write your report.”

Nagy also met his wife, Jane, while at Texas Tech. The two married, and before heading back to Washington, D.C., Nagy took the Foreign Service exam. He failed, but continued pursuing his dream of becoming a diplomat by working for the federal government while completing his master’s degree.

He took the exam a second time and passed, then joined the State Department in 1978, serving as a management analyst in the Bureau of Personnel. In 1979, he received his first assignment overseas as a general services officer in Lusaka, Zambia.

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Two decades of African diplomacy

“We went on to spend more than 20 years in Africa,” Nagy said. “First Zambia, then helping open the embassy in Zimbabwe, then going on to the Seychelles Islands. We went to Ethiopia the first time, then Togo, Cameroon, Nigeria, Guinea and finally finished up in Ethiopia the second time.”

He served as an administrative officer in Victoria, Seychelles, and as deputy chief of mission in Lagos, Nigeria; Lome, Togo; and Yaoundé, Cameroon. From 1996 to 1999, he was the U.S. Ambassador to Guinea, and from 1999 to 2002, the U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia.

“I had the privilege of helping prevent famine in Ethiopia, to help bring peace to Ethiopia,” Nagy said. “I helped end a horrendous conflict in Guinea and helped evacuate Americans from Sierra Leone during another conflict.”

During their time in Africa, the Nagys also raised triplets, sons Stephen and Peter, who also would go on to become Red Raiders, and daughter Tisza. They would return to the U.S. each year to visit Jane’s family in Lockney.

“We came home for the summers because our kids were in school,” Nagy said. “They would spend time on the farm and I would get in touch with the political science department at Texas Tech and offer to give lectures.”

Staying in contact with his alma mater put his name on the list of candidates when it came time for then-executive director of the OIA, Idris Traylor, to retire. About the time Nagy was finishing up in Ethiopia, he was contacted about replacing Traylor. At the same time, Nagy said he was offered a position in Washington as deputy assistant secretary of state.

Academia sounded more fun.

“First, I did a year as the State Department’s ‘Diplomat in Residence’ at the University of Oklahoma to test the waters and see if I would like academia,” Nagy said. “I absolutely loved it. So then I went through the interview process and Texas Tech selected me, and I’ve been here for the last 14-plus years.”

Making his mark at Texas Tech

Nagy

Before returning to Texas Tech in 2003, Nagy asked State Department colleagues who also had experience in academia for advice on making the transition.

“I talked with as many colleagues as I could, and it’s really funny because they said, ‘Well, prepare for academia just like you would for any foreign posting,’” Nagy said. “‘When you get there, learn the language and the culture and you’ll be OK.’ It proved to be very true.”

Nagy met with deans and administrators to gauge the state of the university’s global engagement and the attitudes toward globalization, something he saw as an inevitable, incoming force people were going to be required to face. The results were mixed.

“There were still quite a lot of people who never thought twice about international engagement,” Nagy said. “For them, Texas Tech was a regional university meant to serve the area where we are. The number of our students who studied abroad was relatively miniscule.”

It was not just American students lacking global engagement. There also was a lack of international students coming to the university.

“When I first arrived, and this is no exaggeration, just about the only international undergraduate students we had were scholarship athletes, because at that time, the admissions office did not know how to deal with international undergraduate applications,” Nagy said. “The ratio was 90 percent graduate students, 10 percent undergraduates.”

There were what Nagy calls “bright lights” even then – people like President Donald Haragan, who helped establish, among other things, the OIA, the Study Abroad Program and the Texas Tech University Center in Sevilla, Spain. But overall, Nagy said there was really no energy for international engagement.

That is, until there was.

Creating a globalized community

“Things started really changing when we started getting senior leadership that was very focused on global engagement,” Nagy said. “It was driven by a number of factors. One was that globally engaged universities were the ones that enjoyed the highest reputations. Two, which I find very interesting, was feedback from industries. Industries were telling certain segments of the university that they wanted graduates who were globally competent, globally competitive, and that was a huge boost.”

Nagy

The College of Architecture was the first to begin requiring international experience of its students, Nagy said. Then, the College of Engineering began requiring international experience of every single one of its graduates, something no other engineering college in the country was doing, Nagy said. The impact was significant.

“When I came here in 2003, we were sending out about 200 students to study abroad,” Nagy said. “Last summer, we sent out more than 1,200. International students are now up to the 3,200 range from more than 100 countries. This year, for the first time, we have more undergraduate than graduate international students, and we are proactively looking for additional sources.”
The university also began sending more faculty and students around the world. Among them are Red Raiders conducting research in India, leading festivals in Kuala Lumpur, serving in Costa Rica and studying in Japan, Brazil and Spain.

“As Vice Provost for International Affairs, Ambassador Nagy has played a critical role in growing international enrollment on our campus and providing greater international opportunities for students and faculty,” said President Lawrence Schovanec. “As a result of his leadership and vision, Texas Tech now enjoys a greater global presence and a richer international culture that benefit not only our university, but the broader Lubbock community as well.”

In fall 2018, the university will open the doors to its first degree-granting campus in Central America.

“I cannot tell you how pleased I am with the data regarding the growth in the various international programs,” Nagy said. “The single biggest accomplishment is that when I came here, ‘international’ was very much at the periphery for the university. As I leave, I think ‘international’ is very much in the major center of the university with our academic fields. When people think about various aspects, they ask about the international implications. I look back at 2003, I look at today, and I say, ‘Oh my gosh, from the fringe to the center.’”

Though Nagy gives much of the credit for transforming the university into a globalized institution to those in his office and others around campus, many say the results have come directly from the work Nagy has done and the way he interacts with those around him.

“Texas Tech University owes a great debt to Ambassador Nagy for his visionary leadership of the Office of International Affairs,” said Provost Michael Galyean. “His understanding of education and outreach in a global context, developed through his years of experience in the Foreign Service, has translated to a remarkable internationalization of the Texas Tech campus that will serve as a foundation for the work of our faculty and students for decades to come.”

Those efforts at internationalization have included a variety of other OIA initiatives throughout the years.

“We’re one of the few universities in the country that has a passport application-accepting office on the university premises where we give exceptional service,” Nagy said. “Then there are the institutional partnerships we have built. We’ve also been very pleased with the quality of the speakers and visitors we’ve brought here.”

Speaker and visitor events have included three visits from His Imperial and Royal Highness Archduke Georg von Habsburg-Lothringen, a prominent global figure from Austria and Hungary with expertise in politics and business, and hosting a cohort of Mandela Washington Fellows for a six-week leadership institute. Nagy also moderated a panel discussion with Ambassador Hunaina Sultan Al-Mughairy, Omani Ambassador to the United States, and Ambassador Frances Cook, former U.S. Ambassador to Oman.

“Ambassador Hunaina Sultan Al-Mughairy is the first Arab female ambassador of the United States, and Ambassador Cook was the first female U.S. ambassador to the Arabian Gulf,” Nagy said. “To have the two of them together on stage, talking about the issues they had to face, not only as ambassadors, but also as women ambassadors and as women, really resonated with the students, and they were able to talk to a number of groups.”

Nagy said he is especially pleased that the university is an active part of the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Ambassadors Forum. The program brings top-notch foreign policy experts to the university for guest lectures and discussions.

“The American Academy of Diplomacy is the National Science Foundation’s counterpart to the foreign policy community,” Nagy said. “They’ve been out twice now, and one of the gentlemen who was out with the last group, Kurt Volker, was subsequently named the president’s special envoy for Ukraine and Russia. They’re coming out again next year and that’s one of the programs we very much hope to perpetuate, as has a number of other leading universities in the country.”

Room to grow

As Nagy hands the reins to successor Sukant Misra, Associate Vice Provost for International Programs, he said he anticipates many opportunities to continue making strides in the global community. With Misra at the helm, Nagy added, Texas Tech is poised to become a go-to university for international development agencies.

“Where I really see us moving forward will be in the international research and development grants,” Nagy said. “It’s a huge potential for Texas Tech because we have so many areas of expertise exactly in the fields that international development projects need expertise. Whether it’s agricultural, environmental, STEM, engineering technology, wind sciences or water, Texas Tech is very much a global-leading institution in those fields, and we have tremendous potential to move forward.”

Though he is reluctant to leave Texas Tech, Nagy said he is ready, excited about the future and pleased with what he accomplished during his time as a Red Raider. There is a chance he will go back into service with the federal government, but he plans also to maintain a relationship with Texas Tech and other academic institutions.

“I love teaching. It is my favorite part,” Nagy said. “I was very fortunate because I taught contemporary Africa. You start with students who literally know nothing about Africa. Then you get to the end of the semester and their knowledge is so advanced that I would feel comfortable sending almost any of them as a first-time U.S. diplomat to one of our African embassies. It is tremendously satisfying to see that type of personal growth.”

Nagy said he has been delighted to bring the truth about Africa to his students.

“I really found a passion for teaching, and I was very fortunate because I taught for the Honors College and had small classes of highly motivated students who very much wanted to be there and learn about Africa,” Nagy said. “It’s been an honor and a privilege and joy of sharing my knowledge with them.”

His interactions with students, both in and out of the classroom, are what he will miss the most after retirement.

“I just had an email from a student from 10 years ago,” Nagy said. “One of the things I do is I make my students responsible for following a country, like we do in the state department, so they become an expert on a country in Africa. I had made this gentleman responsible for Zimbabwe and he said after our class, he has never stopped following the events of Zimbabwe.”

Another student who had a similar experience initially admitted he only took the class because it fit in his schedule.

“He ended up really enjoying it and then went on to become a prominent attorney,” Nagy said. “I still hear from him from time to time, and he still laughs about the fact that he had no idea what he was getting into. But he found it fascinating and has maintained that fascination and is still following African events.”

Nagy said while he will miss being in the academic environment and part of a university that continues to develop into a true global institution of excellence, he will especially miss the people, regardless of if they were faculty, staff or students.

“Seeing the personal development of some of the young people I’ve come to know has been tremendously satisfying,” Nagy said. “I’ve also done a lot of traveling with a lot of different people within the university. It is true that when you travel internationally with someone, you really get to know him or her,
and it’s been an absolute delight getting to know some of those folks.”

Nagy said he looks forward to witnessing the continued growth of the OIA under Misra in years to come.

“I really expect a lot more under Dr. Misra’s very superb leadership,” Nagy said, smiling. “Just keep doing what you’re doing and only work 18 hours a day, not 24.”


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