Peek into the Learning Assistance Center on the Portsmouth Campus. If he’s not teaching class, it’s a good bet the Tidewater Community College mathematics professor is inside, explaining equations or deciphering calculus for a student in need.
“I want to be here; this is where the students come when they have issues,” says Agbakpe, who students call “Dr. Peter.” “I’m usually the first to come to school and the last to leave because this is a job that has to be done. If it’s one problem a day you’ve helped someone with, you’ve done something for somebody.”
He speaks with an enchanting accent stemming from his native country, Ghana, a place where walking barefoot to school while carrying a table above your head is commonplace.
“It’s the same table you have to remember to bring home, or you’ll have nothing to eat and drink on,” he says.
Agbakpe didn’t embrace academics instantly. He had nine siblings, and his younger brother, Patrick, eventually caught up with him in class after skipping grades.
“In Ghana we have chiefs and kings,” he says. “Everybody was telling him he was going to be king.”
So Peter Agbakpe asked himself, “Why can’t I be king? We have the same father, the same mother. I am not dumb. There’s something he is doing that I am not doing.”
He took a week to visit his brother, studying business administration in college. He watched Patrick’s study habits, realizing how much he was rewriting his notes.
“He would rewrite the notes so much that he could recite them,” Agbakpe says. “I started rewriting my notes, and the teachers started calling my name. Later, I realized there’s something about the brain and the hand. There’s a connection. That’s why I’m always inspecting students’ notes.”
Agbakpe received his bachelor’s from Ghana’s University of Science and Technology in 1989. He has a pair of master’s degrees from Hampton University, where he also received his doctorate in nuclear high-energy physics.
After teaching 17 years at Norfolk State University and spending 10 years as a senior associate fellow at Jefferson Lab, Agbakpe came to TCC in 2011. He continues to be a visiting professor at the University of Virginia during the summer.
Agbakpe came to TCC largely in hopes of steering students toward careers in math and science.
“There are a lot of opportunities in those fields,” he says. “The job market is wide open.”
His challenge involves breaking the mindset that math and science are daunting subjects. Students often take the minimum requirements. He shrugs at the notion.
“What I tell my students is that there’s a rule to everything,” he says. “I’m sitting down right now, and if I want to get up, there’s a rule. If you don’t put your foot down, you can’t get up. Mathematics is just a bunch of rules. In teaching English, we have many rules, and if you don’t follow the rules, you can’t write. It’s the same with math.”
Agbakpe urges students having any kind of math or science issues to come to him. He admits he has high standards, but notes, “I am very, very approachable. I want to help. That’s what I’m here for.”