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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 students.

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.

image of Ghia and students

"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 faculty-student relations.

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 cubicle.

"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 others."

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.

"Dr. 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 conference.

"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 audience."

"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.

Ghia jokes that he just borrows the time from his sleep, but his colleagues confirm his long-standing dedication to his students.

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."

Ghia said 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 fits.

"Every young person in the pursuit of knowledge...goes through this. That's what drives me...to see that I could be of help."

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.

"He 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 McGreehan M.S.,1984.

"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."

Although 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 graduation.

"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.

He 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 me."

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.

Such dedication 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."


 
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