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Accelerating innovation: The obstacle is the way

'I see challenges, thinking they’re a hill. Then I find they’re a mountain. But here I am climbing.'

Easy does it. The obstacle is the way.

That catchphrase represents the summit that Hazem Said has ultimately scaled as a pioneering innovator who has dramatically streamlined and strengthened information technology (IT) education in Ohio — so much so that the state is now the national model that others look to.

The “easy” part in the phrase refers to how seamlessly the University of Cincinnati-led partnership network of high schools and community colleges work together, using existing resources, to enable thousands of teenage students access to affordable IT education, leading to baccalaureate and master’s degrees.

Admittedly, Said states he and his many partners eventually arrived to this seamless ease only after he himself first underestimated the distance and range and then subsequently scrambled, clambered, grasped handholds and, yes, had more than a few missteps along the way.

“I do have a pattern where I see a societal challenge and jump into addressing it, not seeing how high the mountains that I will need to climb,” admits Said, director of UC’s School of Information Technology housed within the College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services (CECH).

“That’s been the case when I opted to come to the United States to study, when I first moved from engineering into IT, when I first worked to merge computing technology programs into the IT discipline in a former UC college, and it was the same with the Early IT ecosystem we’ve now developed with 32 high schools and more than 12 community colleges in Ohio. I see challenges, thinking they’re a hill, and then I find they’re a mountain. But here I am climbing, so I might as well keep climbing.”

But in the end, it’s just this quality that’s been good for innovation.

A student in headphones sits at a computer.

UC's Early IT Program introduces first-year high school students to information technology and removes access and affordability barriers to undergraduate programs and degrees in such specialties as cybersecurity, networking and systems, software application development, game development and simulation, and data technologies. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative + Brand

Basics of UC’S Early IT Program

Said’s latest brainchild publicly launched with a 2017 agreement between UC and Cincinnati Public Schools that provided 30 Hughes STEM high school first-year students a unique opportunity.

Throughout their high school careers, these students would have the opportunity to complete the first year of UC's bachelor of science in IT degree. These courses would be taught by their high school teachers after those teachers had completed 18-credit hours of UC-led training.

A student replaces a computer processor.

Students take part in a UC Early IT camp. Photo/Provided

Moreover, if the students achieved a C grade or better on these courses, they would be accepted into UC as sophomore IT majors and would be immediately eligible for cooperative education job placements (paid internships) with area employers the summer before beginning at UC as sophomores.   

This automatic admission and early coursework provides for accessibility. The paid co-op opportunities, even before setting foot on UC’s campus, boosts affordability as students could earn enough that first summer to substantially pay for first semester's tuition. This beneficial cycle repeats as subsequent co-ops, fulfilling in-demand needs of employers, continue to help defray education costs.

These opportunities also pave the way to increased academic excellence for participants as they live out and embody UC's Next Lives Here strategic direction.

College and the possibility of college was a long, dark tunnel for me. I couldn’t see a way where going to college was a path I would be able to take. The Early IT Program has given me that path. It’s that simple.

Shantelle Love-Isham, Hughes STEM High School junior in UC's Early IT program

One of the very first students to enter the Early IT Program is Shantelle Love-Isham, a Hughes STEM High School junior. Before she joined the Early IT Program, she says, “College and the possibility of college was a long, dark tunnel for me. I couldn’t see a way where going to college was a path I would be able to take. The Early IT Program has given me that path. It’s that simple.”

Since 2017, this Early IT model has expanded to 32 high schools throughout Ohio and now includes a community college component as well with 12 community colleges throughout the state — encompassing a total of about 1,300 students.

Heather Powell talks while her daughter listens next to her.

Williamsburg High School Principal Heather Powell, right, talks about UC's Early IT Program. In the background in her daughter, Lily, who joined the program and is now a UC sophomore studying information technology. Photo/Provided

One of those schools is Williamsburg High School in Clermont County, Ohio. Principal Heather Powell acted quickly to bring the Early IT Program to her school, seeing it as especially beneficial to first-generation students.

“We are a small, rural high school in Clermont County, and we are always looking for opportunities to engage kids in different ways. We knew we had a pocket of kids who were thinking about what IT might look like. Dr. Said came out and spoke to us, and we fell in love with it,” says  Powell.

So much so that Powell’s own daughter was one of the first students at Williamsburg to sign up for the Early IT Program and is now a sophomore at the university.  

Educators stand on stage in front of a banner for Akron Public Schools.

The newest Early IT Program partnership provides students at Kenmore-Garfield High School with the opportunity to complete up to 43 hours of college credit through Stark State College. Students who complete their freshmen year of the information technology bachelor’s degree program while in high school will automatically be accepted to UC as sophomore IT majors and immediately be eligible for co-op placement. The program is provided at no cost to high school students. Alternatively, students can enroll in Stark State, complete an associate's degree and then enroll in UC's Online BSIT program. Photo/Shane Wynn Photography

When your audience becomes your advocate

While Said and others within UC were the initiators of the Early IT Program, the partners are critical, and according to Said, initially set the forward pace for ongoing implementation. It was deliberately set up that way because Said wanted to avoid tripping over obstacles he'd faced earlier in his academic career when pursuing ambitious heights.

“Years ago, in the early 2000s, I was driving the merger of computing technology programs from various units in the one-time College of Applied Science. There was a vision to build the IT discipline, and I was driving very fast. Really, I thought I was driving up a hill and didn’t see the mountains for that very hill. One day, my unit head had to come to me and said, ‘I need you to resign your position as coordinator.’ In retrospect, part of it was me not appreciating and realizing the importance of investing in building a team that I simply wasn’t harnessing as I should have,” he confesses.

A high school student works with electronics.

High school students take part in a UC Early IT camp. Photo/Provided

“That first experience of being ‘fired’ was transformative for me. I did realize that I had to change. And I consciously worked to change, to be more mindful of the geological shifts and plates beneath the surface. I realized that you can be right in the way a student can be perfectly right when completing an exam. You might be getting an A on the exam. You can get everything right, but you can still get an F in real life unless you respect, develop and listen beyond just the words to the leadership potential within a team and the human dynamics that underlay everything,” he recalls.

It was just such experiences and obstacles that led Said to foster what he now calls a “people perspective” when surmounting challenges. This has contributed materially to the success of the Early IT Program, especially in terms of program design and execution around what’s best for all collective partners.

For instance, in planning to expand the Early IT Program throughout the state in 2018 and early 2019, Said organized a series of round tables to establish the community of partner entities and schools.

In the third such round table, held in spring 2019, something profound happened. One of those in attendance, Joel King, now assistant director of teaching and learning at Great Oaks Career Centers, prodded Said.

"What he’s doing is going to change education from a secondary and post-secondary stance. The clear structure of the program, its acceptance options and co-op are appealing to students with financial challenges, especially.”

Joel King, Assistant Director of Teaching and Learning, Great Oaks Career Centers

Students crowd around a computer screen.

High school students take part in a camp introducing them to UC's Early IT Program. Photo/Provided

Recalls King (who at that time was with the Warren County Career Center), “I challenged Hazem saying, ‘We’re 50 people here representing 24 school districts. What do you want us to do for you so we can take the next step? What do you need from us? We’re ready to move forward.’”

King adds, “I basically wanted to communicate that yes, we’re here. We’re excited. We want this to happen. Let’s drive forward. I saw the huge positive impact this program is having. Hazem is focused on our needs, and I totally believe in what he’s doing. What he’s doing is going to change education from a secondary and post-secondary stance. The clear structure of the program, its acceptance options and co-op are appealing to students with financial challenges, especially.”

For Said, that exchange with King was a new and unlooked-for experience. Said knows well what it is  like to feel ahead of the curve. At this instance, it actually seemed he was behind the curve, outpaced by the partners he had been collaborating with.

But, he knew instinctively that this was the sign and the pivotal moment to press ahead to the next ascent. After all, the surest sign of success is when your audience and partners become your advocates — and your welcome goad.

“It’s about finding win-win solutions to complex problems and achieving a balance, and my  earlier failures, I think, helped me to think deeply and creatively to achieve greater balance as we continue to climb. It’s about making it easy — easy does it — for our collaborators and all the students to work with us. Challenging coursework yes, but an easily seen pathway and process toward future degrees," reflects Said.

Williamsburg’s Powell agrees, stating of Hazem, “He’s in it for ‘us.’ He owns the problems and the innovations — though ‘innovator’ is too weak a word for Hazem. He knows each high school partner has unique challenges and problems, as does UC. But it’s never been: ‘Good luck. Figure it out.’ It’s always been: ‘We’re in it together.”

Hazem Said serves food in a chef's apron during a campus cookout.

UC's Hazem Said and fellow faculty member Jim Scott partner with faculty and staff to host an annual Mediterranean-themed campus cookout for students in UC's School of Information Technology. Photo/Provided

No breaks or brakes

Teamwork is what makes the Early IT Program and UC’s School of Information Technology what they are.

The team of instructors includes industry veterans like Jim Scott, a UC alumnus and a former chief technology officer with The Kroger Company, who joined UC’s teaching ranks after retiring from his corporate career.

Scott leads the 155 IT seniors in their year-long capstone projects where he challenges them to hone their business acumen, problem solve and advance creative solutions in projects designed to set them apart as they prepare to graduate the university.

I’m here because of Hazem Said. I gravitate to people with big dreams and big vision, and I’ve never seen anyone to equal him in his drive to succeed.

Jim Scott, IT assistant professor and former chief technology officer at Kroger.

He underscores that he came to teach in the program in 2012 because of Said.

States Scott, “I’m here because of Hazem Said. I gravitate to people with big dreams and big vision, and I’ve never seen anyone to equal him in his drive to succeed. It’s too easy to be No. 2 or No. 3. That’s not the ethos here. He absolutely makes me a better teacher, so that in their final year here, I work with our students who transform to become our professional colleagues.”

“And we always celebrate that at the end of the year with Hazem cooking for days to create a wonderful Mediterranean feast, and we sit down to celebrate with our seniors – now our colleagues. ”

That dedication to goal — transforming students into colleagues — is so all-encompassing that Scott says that in all the many hours — from early morning to evening — in working with Said, he’d never seen his friend in anything but a formal suit and tie. And that includes during the end-of-year celebration cook out where Said is the chef.

That’s until one day in 2018, Scott was cycling on a local trail. He and his wife passed by another rider going in the opposite direction, wearing a T-shirt, sweat pants and tennis shoes.

Laughs Scott, “It wasn’t until we were loading up our bikes that I realized with some shock that it was Hazem! My wife passed first and didn’t recognize him. Then I rode by, and I didn’t recognize him either. And he’s my best friend! Until that moment, I had never known that the suit and tie wasn’t his second skin! He’s always working!”

No matter, Said laughs that Scott didn’t recognize him. The important thing, he maintains, is that neither one of them slowed their pace or hit the brakes. “Whether I’m working or riding and whatever I’m wearing, I plan to keep up the pace. No breaks or brakes.”

Featured image at top: Hazem Said, director of UC's School of Information Technology, addresses Akron's Kenmore-Garfield High School this past February when the school joined as a partner in the Early IT Program. Photo/Shane Wynn Photography

Video link: https://www.youtube.com/embed/vUkDHUUY_kA?rel=0

Professor and Director of UC School of Information Technology Hazem Said defines IT in 42 seconds flat.

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