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World traveler, professor known as one-of-a-kind teacher earns NMSU's highest faculty award

Geography professor John "Jack" Wright has won New Mexico State University's highest faculty honor, the Westhafer Award for Excellence in Teaching. He was recognized during the university's fall convocation Tuesday, Aug. 20.

Headshot of Jack Wright
John "Jack" Wright, geography professor at New Mexico State University, has won the faculty's highest honor, the Westhafer Award for Excellence in Teaching. He was recognized during the university's fall convocation. (NMSU photo by Ben La Marca)

"I am just one of six excellent teachers in the geography department," said Wright, full professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. "We pride ourselves on our genuine and deep commitment to teaching. It's the prime directive of everything we do."

The Westhafer Award was established in memory of Robert L. Westhafer, professor in the mathematics department from 1946 to 1957. The annual award, which includes $3,000, is given in alternating years and recognizes NMSU faculty for excellence in teaching, research and creative activity.

"Dr. John Wright is an extraordinary geographer and teacher," said Christopher Brown, geography department head who nominated Wright for the award. "He is one of a kind - a world traveler, teacher, scholar and writer who cares genuinely and profoundly for his students. In his 23 years at NMSU, he has gained the coveted reputation among students as someone who teaches based on his own research and personal experience in the world."

Wright joined the NMSU faculty in 1990. The classes he teaches include cultural geography, environmental planning and world regional geography, one of the largest introductory classes in the College of Arts and Sciences.

"I genuinely love to teach those classes," Wright said. "It gives me a chance to reach 250 students per semester and hopefully expose them to the joys and challenges of analyzing global conflicts. I also recruit a lot of geography majors that way, which is great, since they are assured of leading an interesting life and making an excellent living as a professional."

Originally from Maine, Wright is recognized as an expert on the cultural, historical and environmental geography of New Mexico and the American West. He has traveled to more than 70 countries in Latin America, Africa, Europe, Asia and Oceania, and has built his classes on that experience.

Wright said he recently extended that international experience when he and NMSU faculty member Rachel Stevens, a sculpture professor in the art department, honeymooned in the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine and Austria.

His research focuses on land conservation, cultural geography and environmental planning. He has published 70 articles and 71 technical reports in both academic publications and field journals. His work can be found in Geographical Review, Journal of Cultural Geography, Society for Range Management, Urban Ecosystems and Environmental Conservation and many others.

He has published five books. "Rocky Mountain Divide: Selling and Saving the West," was awarded the J.B. Jackson Prize of the Association of American Geographers and other awards in 1993.

The co-author of "Saving the Ranch: Conservation Easement Design in the American West," Wright also has published extensively on conservation easements and other land protection techniques.

In 2003, he helped to found New Mexico Land Conservancy, where he served as chair until 2012. During that time, NMLC conserved more than 112,000 acres of agricultural land, wildlife habitat and scenic open space across New Mexico.

Additionally, he has published papers on a wide array of subjects in cultural geography with a particular focus on sacred sites and the formation of natural resource ideologies.

The geographer also has helped to secure numerous grants from the National Science Foundation and other agencies.

Wright earned a Ph.D. in geography from the University of California, Berkeley in 1990, a master's in geography from the University of Montana in 1983 and a bachelor's in geography from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1973.

In 2007, he received NMSU's Donald G. Roush Award for Teaching Excellence. This annual award was named for a former NMSU executive vice president in recognition of his 35 years of teaching improvement in New Mexico.

"I am humbled by this honor for the geography department given the extraordinary quality of past recipients," Wright said. "The Westhafer is a capstone for my quarter century career at NMSU. What a thrill!"