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Oscar Schmidt Public Service Award
"Mr. Global" Find Splendor in Differences

Date: May 19, 2000
By: Mary Bridget Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photo by: Colleen Kelley Archive: General News, Campus News

Muthar Al-Ubaidi is amazed at America. When he first came to the United States in 1978, he recalls, "I was impressed that people came from different cultures and made the No. 1 nation in the world. People all from the same culture haven't managed to do that. I saw that acting together, our differences are beautiful rather than bad."

That sums up Al-Ubaidi's philosophy, one that has fueled him in his service to the university, the wider community and his profession, earning him this year's Oscar Schmidt Public Service Award.

image of Muthar

Al-Ubaidi, associate professor of mechanical engineering technology in the College of Applied Science, is "Mr. Global" for UC and for Greater Cincinnati. In the classroom and in the community, he constantly strives to increase cultural understanding and communication. "I love to see people take charge and change things to bring justice, prosperity for all. We don't have to fight for resources. Communication can solve any problem. It can take a long time, but if all sides are willing to work and cooperate, we can realize wonderful goals," he said.

Al-Ubaidi is living proof that such wonderful goals can be fulfilled. For instance, he serves and leads a number of campus and community efforts like UC's Worldfest and the city's International Folk Festival. When called on, he helped organize the opening reception for a Syrian artifacts exhibit at the Cincinnati Art Museum, and he founded and continues to lead a prestigious international conference called "Intertech", which meets every two years to promote engineering, technology and education exchanges throughout the Western Hemisphere. "It's a small world, and I want to bring it closer," Al-Ubaidi explains.

Al-Ubaidi, an Iraqi native, promotes connections throughout UC by employing traditional Middle Eastern hospitality. He has hosted luncheons of Middle Eastern cuisine for 15 years. It's not unusual for more than 100 guests to gather for the food and fellowship, and the single-handed effort has Al-Ubaidi cooking for three days beforehand. Fellow faculty member Beverly Swaile, assistant professor of chemical technology, estimates that approximately 4,000 UC faculty, students and staff have attended at least one of the lunches.

However, Al-Ubaidi does not limit celebration of the many cultures that make up America to respecting Arabic culture. For example, last year, he and Swaile stepped forward to make the college's annual Christmas party a reality. Recalled Swaile, "I was pushing to call the festivities a 'holiday' party because so many cultures are represented in our college. Muthar disagreed, saying, 'Hey, we are in a primarily Christian country and this is, in fact, a Christmas party. Let's call it what it is and celebrate that.' Muthar basically gave me permission to embrace my own culture as I reach out to embrace others."

Al-Ubaidi repeats that pattern in the community where he routinely focuses on language and cultural events for school students. For instance, he has chaired a Cultural Youth Gala for Cincinnati Public School students. The annual event brings together up to 80 international exchange students studying in Cincinnati with about 500 students in the local public schools. Students from other countries exhibit items that represent their homelands and demonstrate traditional dances and music.

"It's like the International Folk Festival. Fun is the trap. When I first began telling people to come to the city's International Folk Festival, they would say they couldn't. When they found out I was performing, they said, 'Oh, well, I'll come and see you.' But then, they have such a good time, they come year after year. The folk festival is three days that demonstrates how we've built a great society here: by communication and respect, everyone teaching and learning at the same time," added Al- Ubaidi, who has served as the chair and as a board member of the festival.

Communication and respect are watchwords for Al-Ubaidi whenever he speaks via the print media, via the local radio program "Voice of Arabia" or during casual one-on-one conversations. During recent U.S.-Iraqi conflicts like the Gulf War, Al-Ubaidi stepped forward to aid media and fellow Americans to understand the cultural similarities and differences between the two nations during what was a tense time for many Arab-Americans.

"I tell fellow immigrants that it's important to take the initiative to communicate with others. If you think coverage is biased, be willing to talk to the media civilly. It serves everyone. Because I was visible in the media, groups invited me to come and speak about Iraq. Someone I routinely see at the post office said that he didn't agree with what I said about Iraq during the Gulf War. I said that was fine so long as he'd really thought about it. In communicating, whether with students in the classroom, via the media or just in chatting, I hope to encourage people to think, to always seek the truth, to be truly 'thought-full' in the best sense of the word."

His students certainly find Al-Ubaidi "thought-full." One former student, Sarah Beth Gross, was pursuing her degree as a returning adult student after a difficult divorce. She relied on financial aid, but there was a delay in approval of that aid. Gross was told she would have to withdraw. "I was devastated. I passed Dr. Al-Ubaidi on my way out the door. He noticed that I was upset. I explained the situation to him. Dr. Al-Ubaidi was very sympathetic and asked me to allow him to look into the situation before I withdrew," she said.

"The next day, Dr. Al-Ubaidi called me. He'd made a lot of phone calls to get me the right contacts who could help. Because of his effort, I not only finished the semester, but I was able to continue full-time until I had finished my study," said Gross, who, with Al-Ubaidi's encouragement, later completed a master's degree in engineering within one year. She added, "Dr. Al-Ubaidi is the professor who encourages students to not only dream, but to continually reach for our dreams."

The effort was typical of Al-Ubaidi who received special help when he first came to this country to pursue his doctorate at UC. "I was looking for a place to stay, but it was January, and campus was full," he recalled. "I went into Graeter's because they had a public phone to try and make calls to find a place. I was very discouraged and looked depressed. A couple asked if they could help me. I told them my situation. Before you knew it, they called and got me a room at the YMCA on Central Parkway. They called somewhere else and found me a basement apartment that I could move into in a week. They even drove me back to the hotel and moved me to the YMCA. I was so happy, so excited, I forgot to get their name and address. I've never seen them again."

It proved to him, said Al-Ubaidi, that people are good. "Sometimes," he laughed, "there's just a little rust on people. But if you just rub a little, you'll find bright metal underneath."

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