UNCW professor earns state employees’ highest honor

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UNCW professor Dr. Herb Berg has won the Governor's Award For Excellence, the highest honor a state employee can receive. Photo courtesy UNCW.
UNCW professor Dr. Herb Berg has won the Governor’s Award For Excellence, the highest honor a state employee can receive. Photo courtesy UNCW.

UNC-Wilmington professor Dr. Herb Berg considers himself a teacher first and a scholar second.

It’s a simple approach, but behind that basic philosophy is a long list of ways Berg has reached out to students and served the local campus since coming on nearly two decades ago.

And that long list is likely behind his recent Governor’s Award for Excellence, the highest honor a state employee can receive.

The award–given annually to a handful of individuals across North Carolina–is meant to acknowledge and express appreciation for outstanding accomplishments that go beyond the scope of normal job duties.

Berg is the first UNCW employee to win the award since 1997.

“I am truly honored and grateful for the opportunity to cast UNCW’s college of arts and sciences and humanities, international studies and philosophy and religion departments in a positive light,” he said.

Berg started his career teaching religious studies at the University of Toronto. At first, he said, teaching was just part of the path to academia. Berg’s area of expertise is Islam.

“Initially, it was this is simply what you did if you did graduate work in the study of religion. But it quickly became what I enjoy most,” he said.

He later taught at Middlebury College, also in Toronto, then the University of Vermont and Cornell University before joining UNCW’s philosophy and religion department in 1997.

After 11 years on the job, he became director of graduate liberal studies, where he served for five years before taking on the hefty task of creating a new department–international studies.

“I had never done anything like this, and I didn’t know anyone who had. It was very daunting,” he recalled. “But I saw myself as a natural fit. I was born in Brazil, raised in Canada and I study a language and culture I have no connection with.”

Apparently, he was a good fit. Now in its third year, international studies–an interdisciplinary major that combines global awareness with politics, economics, history and linguistics–the department has grown to more than 120 students, all of whom Berg advises.

“It has done enormously well,” he said of the program.

He currently teaches two courses in the department in addition to serving as chair and advisor.

“For me, international studies is about opening up possibilities and fostering a greater understanding of the world. But at the same time, getting (students) to think critically–‘What does it mean? How does it impact my life?'” Berg said.

Berg is not sure who nominated him for the Governor’s Award for Excellence, and he has deeper questions, as well.

“Do I do something dramatically different than anyone else here?” he asked.

His accolades might speak for themselves. Last year alone, he received the Board of Trustees Teaching Excellence Award and the Distinguished Professorship Award from UNCW. He is this year’s winner of the Distinguished Faculty Scholarship Award. He won the Chancellor’s Teaching Excellence Award in 2006 and has thrice received the Discere Aude Award for his student mentoring.

In addition to a host of community presentations at area churches, schools and synagogues, Berg is also a member of TIGR (Team For Interdiscplinary Global Research), which leads geostrategic intelligence seminars for members of the intelligence community. TIGR was created through a grant from the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Center for Language, Regional Expertise and Culture. The group has already led two sessions at the Pentagon.

Through all his transitions, Berg has always considered himself a teacher. And, simply put, the mindset toward his students has guided his success.

“It has to do with how you think of students,” he said. “If you think of them as humans first, then you can really create a dialogue and understanding.”

Berg will receive his Governor’s Award For Excellence from Gov. Pat McCrory during a reception on Nov. 19 at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh.

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6341 or hilary.s@hometownwilmington.com.