When Nevada County resident Tony Waters was an idealistic 22 year old working with refugees in Thailand, he thought technology could solve the world's problems.
Now 53, Waters has made a career of studying how the world's problems got to be how they are. Though he's less idealistic, he now sees understanding - rather than technology - as the root of all solutions.
Fellow faculty members at California State University, Chico, recently honored Waters, a sociology professor, by naming him Outstanding Professor for 2011.
"It's satisfying, because I admire my colleagues," said Waters, praising the university's faculty for their hard work, community service and for being "really cool."
Waters grew up in Sacramento and earned a bachelor's degree in international agricultural development from the University of California, Davis. He eventually earned a master's degree in biology from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.
That background landed him a job with the Peace Corps' malaria service in Thailand in 1980.
Over three years, he found that speaking Thai and getting along with people was as important as any technological fix for dealing with the refugees' health problems.
"Technological solutions are really important in the world, but that's really not the reason people get sick or are not wealthy or become refugees," Waters said.
In 1984, he went to Tanzania, where he oversaw relief and development projects serving refugees from Burundi for Lutheran World Federation. It was there Waters met his future wife, Dagmar, who was a teacher at a German mission school.
Over the years, he became increasingly convinced technology by itself offered "no silver bullet" to relieve the suffering he was seeing, he said.
With a growing interest in "how people think about themselves and their society," Waters shifted gears. He married Dagmar, then returned to California, attending UC Davis for another master's degree, and then a doctorate in sociology.
In 1991, the couple moved with their two tiny children, Christopher and Kirsten, to a wooded property on southern Nevada County overlooking the Bear River.
International settings continue to provide a backdrop to Waters' career. In 2003, he was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. With family in tow, Waters has taught at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, Germany.
He continues to visit Thailand, and this year taught at Linyi University in Linyi, China -one of that country's many growing cities.
"When you go overseas, you realize how the world is different and that learning a foreign language is cool," quipped Waters, who is fluent in Thai and Swahili and speaks passable German.
Waters' work has taken him into the California Department of Corrections and brought him closer to Chico State's Asian students, who honored him in 2010.
He has published four books on a range of topics and is working on a fifth, "Schooling, Childhood and Bureaucracy," coming out next year. Waters has published more than 90 articles.
Waters finds satisfaction in teaching students who can go into the world to solve many kinds of problems - by first understanding the people they are trying to help.
And he's enthusiastic about the education students receive at Chico State, comparing the institution favorably to California's top-ranked public school, the University of California, Berkeley.
"When it comes to undergraduate education, I think Chico State does a better job than UC Berkeley," Waters said at the ceremony honoring him. "The many large classes at Berkeley are too big for undergraduates."
To contact Senior Staff Writer Trina Kleist, e-mail email@example.com or call (530) 477-4230.