GREENSBORO — Omar Ali has many different titles at UNCG.
Students call him "Professor" or "Doctor" or sometimes "Mister." He also goes by "Dean" because he leads the university's honors college.
Ali just added a new title to this list: Knight.
The French government recently appointed Ali to be a knight in the Order of the Academic Palms — or chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques in French — for his ongoing work with French schools around the world. UNCG believes Ali is the only one of its professors ever to have received French knighthood.
"It was totally unexpected," Ali, a professor of global African diaspora history, said in an interview this week. "I had no idea."
Ali's association with both France and the larger world dates to his childhood. He grew up speaking English and Spanish at home. His father, a civil and structural engineer, was from India. His mother is a native of Peru.
Ali spoke French during his early years in school. He started his schooling in Algeria, the former French colony in northern Africa, then later attended a French school in California. When Ali's family moved to Saudi Arabia for his father's work, Ali got to travel all over the world — to Europe, Asia, the Middle East and points in between.
Ali graduated from high school in California, where his parents met and his father's job was based, then attended college in London and worked briefly for the United Nations.
"I was always thinking ... globally because of my family and my research and training and my travels," Ali said.
While getting his doctorate in history from Columbia University in New York, Ali got a summer job grading Advanced Placement exams in world history. That led to other roles with more responsibility at the College Board, which oversees the AP tests.
In 2014, four years after Ali joined the UNCG faculty, his work at the university and with the College Board caught the eye of the French Ministry of Education. Ali — a world historian, a fluent French speaker and a product of French schools — was recruited to be Inspecteur Délégué of History-Geography for the International Option Baccalaureate. This program blends the French national curriculum with a country's own educational system to create a bilingual and bicultural college-prep program taught at French schools (called lycées Français) and French-American schools around the world.
As inspecteur — another title — Ali oversees the history and geography curricula, teaching and exams at schools that use International Option Baccalaureate. He works with about 140 teachers in the United States, Canada, the Middle East, Far East, Africa and Europe.
"It's about building relationships ..." Ali said. "A lot of it is diplomatic work."
The French government apparently appreciates the work Ali has done. As Philippe Étienne, France's ambassador to the United States, wrote in a letter to Ali informing him of the award: "This honor reflects the French authorities' gratitude for your efforts to promote language and culture in the United States."
Ali now belongs to the Order of Academic Palms, which was established by Emperor Napoleon I in 1808. The order recognizes French and non-French citizens who make major contributions to French education and culture. Ali eventually will receive a medal of silver palms with a purple ribbon, but the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed this official recognition.
Ali said the honor underscores the work he has done to foster international cooperation and build community at French schools worldwide. But Ali said he is most satisfied by the international experiences and connections he has brought back to Greensboro to help UNCG students.
At UNCG, Ali is dean of Lloyd International Honors College, where some of the university's top students are expected to travel abroad and learn a second language. He developed a UNCG history course on how Greensboro's past and present are connected to the world beyond the nation's borders. And in a full-circle kind of way, one of Ali's former students is the diversity and inclusion director at the French-American school in San Francisco.