GEORGE B. BARBOUR AWARD FOR GOOD FACULTY-STUDENT RELATIONS: A Fatherly Approach to Helping Students
May 19, 2000
By: Chris Curran
Phone: (513) 556-1806
Photo by: Lisa Ventre
Archive: General News, Campus News
As a cricket player in India, Kirti Ghia couldn't wait to get
his hands on a bat.
As a faculty member in aerospace
engineering, Ghia uses every opportunity to go to bat for his
As a soccer player growing up, Ghia said he could run
so fast no one could catch him.
As a mentor and adviser at UC,
Ghia's frenetic pace continues, but he's more than willing to let
current and former students catch up with him.
"Once you are a
mentor, you are a mentor for life," said Kirti "Karman" Ghia,
winner of the 2000 George B. Barbour Award for promoting good
Ghia said he realized during
graduate school at the Illinois Institute of Technology in
Chicago that he wasn't destined for a desk job in some lonely
"I am a people person. I didn't want to work off by
myself. I wanted to enter a career where I could interact with
In a strange twist of fate, Ghia was nearly ready to
move to Fort Collins, Colorado and a position at Colorado State
when his graduate adviser Professor Paul Torda intervened.
Torda knew the department head at UC, Paul Harrington, so I came
here for an interview. In those days, we did whatever our adviser
told us, so I came to UC and never regretted it."
More than 30
years later, continues to be inspired by his mentor. "I can't
believe the qualities I saw in him...his tremendous ability to
resolve disputes without an axe to grind."
Most important, Ghia
learned to treat his students with the same respect typically
reserved for family members.
"In India, the professor-student
relationship is very much like the parent-child relationship,"
explained Choudary Bobba, one of Ghia's former doctoral students.
Bobba and Ghia happened to meet Ghia's adviser, and Bobba was
caught off guard when Ghia introduced him as Torda's "grandson."
"I was stunned and pleasantly surprised at his warmth and
affection," recalled Bobba.
The family approach can be carried
to extremes when students are in need. Ghia is well known for his
late hours and long hours.
Former graduate student Steve
Shirooni wrote a letter of recommendation, detailing his first
major presentation at a national aerospace engineering
"Recognizing that I was not quite ready for the
presentation, he stayed up until 2 a.m. to help me understand the
important issues that needed to be conveyed to the
"He provides time to all at the expense of his
personal time. Even during his lunch break (a brown bag in his
office), he responds to our needs. To him this is not a hassle
because he treats us like a part of his extended family," said
Zoe Ruedele, a graduating senior in aerospace engineering.
jokes that he just borrows the time from his sleep, but his
colleagues confirm his long-standing dedication to his
Prem Khosla, assistant department head in aerospace
engineering, wrote that despite an internationally known research
program, "Karman is also an outstanding teacher and very
dedicated to his students. He puts in long hours and is always in
his office even on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays."
investing in his students offers an immediate payback. "They know
you are giving a lot, so you can ask a lot from them. I demand,
and they're willing to give.
"It's very difficult what we ask
of our students. It can take hours to figure out how the puzzle
"Every young person in the pursuit of knowledge...goes
through this. That's what drives me...to see that I could be of
Over the years and decades, his students have come to
appreciate his determination to see them succeed. Whether it's
reaching out to students ready to drop out or in danger of
flunking out, or pushing a top student to do even more, Ghia's
students wrote dozens of letters that came down to the single
simple word "Thanks."
"His devotion to the students never ended
with the class. He was always there willing to help me work
thorough a problem, even if it wasn't from one of his classes,"
reported Lauren Black, a member of the Class of 2000.
realized the courses he taught were challenging and often,
brutally painful. After each exam week, he held a little get
together in the engineering labs to celebrate the end of the
quarter with the students in his classes," wrote Joseph Hermann,
Class of 1990.
"He was a constant source of encouragement,
challenges, advice, and friendship," according to William
"As an adviser, Dr. Ghia was kind,
energetic, encouraging, and positive," commented John Aicholtz,
who earned a bachelor's degree in 1974 and now works as senior
staff engineer at GE Aircraft Engines.
Aicholtz is typical of
students who kept in contact with Ghia years after graduating.
Together, they have shared the joys of new births and worked
through the anguish of economic uncertainties.
"I believe that
I weathered the downsizing (at GE) due to a good work ethic, good
engineering skills, and a good attitude. I consider Karman as one
of the influences in my life that helped me acquire these virtues
and I thank him."
Still, Ghia believes there should be a limit
on what a faculty member demands of his students.
"I am very
different. Some might say 'Let them suffer.' Sometimes, there is
no need to suffer. If you show them, they may excel."
excellence is the ultimate goal, Ghia defines success differently
for each student. He said he's discovered that some who struggled
in the classroom blossomed in their field after
"It's more than knowledge from a book. It's many
other attributes that help students succeed. I take pride in
raising the standard of an average student.
"You always worry
about whether your students will succeed. Then, you hear from a
employer who says 'Your student is doing so well. You should be
so proud of the students you sent me.'"
As a fatherly smile
crosses his face, Ghia goes on to talk about his own family. His
two daughters have both excelled. The oldest, Tina, earned a
chemical engineering degree at the University of Michigan and is
pursuing a medical degree at Case Western. The youngest, Kiran, is completing a history degree at Yale with plans to
attend an Ivy League law school.
"They are very appreciative of
my insistence on excellence. I don't take anything less than the
best possible," said Ghia who readily credits most of their
success to his wife, Urmila.
Urmila, now department head in
mechanical, industrial and nuclear engineering, has probably been
the single most important influence on Karman's life.
admires her abilities to write, to focus her energies despite an
equally hectic schedule, and her determination to succeed when
others were determined to see her fail.
"Whenever I interact
with female students, I think about an incident in Chicago with
my wife. A faculty member asked 'Why are women allowed into
engineering? They're taking seats away from male students. It
really hurt the feelings of my spouse. That statement haunts
But Karman has learned from that experience and freely
opened his doors and his heart to students of both genders and
all cultures. As one student noted, "we don't even speak the same
language." But they all get the same treatment.
may seem difficult to reward, even with an award as prestigious
as the Barbour Award. However, Ghia says he really doesn't need a
plaque or inscription to feel rewarded. He merely looks to the
students who have helped him grow as a researcher, a teacher, and
as a fellow human being.
"There hasn't been a day when I
haven't learned from my students and colleagues. You feel good.
Every day, you are gaining. That's a very exciting day...when
you've learned something."