When given the opportunity last August to serve as an adjunct at UNLV, Aya Shata moved across the country within weeks of completing her doctorate in Miami. This summer, the Egyptian native became an assistant professor of digital media in the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies.
Shata has imbued her teaching and courses with her lifelong love of learning and a passion for media. Her teaching style and research have been influenced by her upbringing, her embrace of new experiences, and the lessons she learned during the Arab Spring.
How did you make the journey to “professor”?
Both of my parents are professors, so it seems to run in the blood somehow. I’ve always seen my mom and my dad — they’re grading, they’re preparing classes, they're conducting research. I remember how, when I was young, I approached my father's desk — full of his papers and students' work — and he would get very careful and take it seriously and tell me not to play with it. I wondered, "Why is it important?," until I grew up to realize it is the responsibility we have as professors toward our students and toward our community/society in the research we do; thus, we have to be careful and take our mission seriously.
I started as a teaching assistant at Cairo University back home in Egypt, and then I found my interests and my passions in academia. Like when I did a presentation in class, when I used to present my projects — I liked doing research. I felt like, “I’m in academia, and I want to pursue this even more.”
It seems like you’ve tackled a lot of big social issues in your past work.
Most of my research is about social change and using digital interactive media for social change. I worked on sustainable development for my dissertation. I worked on HIV prevention. I worked on climate change. I worked on women’s empowerment. All of these social changes, I feel like, even though my education and my major was in advertising/public relations, this shift in my research has been in how to use my knowledge, my understanding of persuasive communication and marketing and advertising to help nonprofit organizations, help make a difference for social causes in the communities we live in.
What are you currently researching?
My research interests are in narrative persuasion, entertainment-education, and exploring the role and impact of digital, interactive, and emerging media such as serious games, VR, social networks, and multiplatform communications in promoting social change and advocating for development.
Were you always so interested in social change and strategic communication?
When I was a student, I didn’t know which major I should go into: Strategic communication, production, or should I go for journalism? So, what happened is that I took an internship in each. I took an internship at a newspaper, at a television news channel, and I also worked at an advertising agency. I fell in love with strategic communication because it’s based on research; it’s based on understanding consumers.
How did the Arab Spring impact you?
Sometimes news tends to make you afraid a little bit to go or join, especially as a young girl who just graduated (with my bachelor's) … I couldn’t just watch everyone go there, so I literally went. I did not even tell my family, and I was surprised that it was nothing like what I was watching on TV. Then I understood that people of the media can shape your beliefs based on what you see. Then I started to see this shift in the Arab Spring and all of the media and how it’s important to communicate all of the different perspectives. Then I came back and I told my family, “Guess what, next time you’re coming with me!”
From one global moment to another: What was it like wrapping up your doctoral program during a global pandemic?
It was an interesting experience, but I loved every part of it. You know, I always say that negative experiences help you to grow mentally and gives you resistance and resilience sometimes. It actually can help you grow more.
Now that you’re at UNLV, how do you like living and teaching in Las Vegas?
I enjoy it but I have to admit the transition from Miami as one of the most humid cities to the driest cities was challenging. I always say, “my hair loves it here in Vegas, but not my dry eyes." I love the winter here, the weather and the mountains.
People are very nice here at UNLV, very welcoming. I go to class every day, and my students always tell me, “You have this energy in you.” And it’s true. I love what I do, and I feel like I’m taking the responsibility of shaping their minds and trying to make a difference, to make them think differently, to challenge their potential.
Who are your heroes?
My parents are my heroes. My late father inspired me to be who I am today. His teachings and wisdom in pursuit of excellence and ethics, still accompany me everywhere. My mother gives me endless support and unconditional love and patience, which gave me the strength to face all obstacles confidently.