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Convocation Address 2018
Adel El Safty headshot

Adel K. El Safty

Distinguished Professor

Professor Computing

College of Computing, Engineering and Construction

 

Distinguished Professor Speech – Dr. Adel ElSafty

 

 

  President Szymanski, Provost Chally, Prof. Fenner, faculty, staff, students, family, friends, and members of the UNF community: Thank you all. I am honored and humbled to be recognized as UNF’s Distinguished Professor. I’d like to congratulate Dr. Elfayoumy on his distinguished professor runner up award and his great accomplishments. I have been fortunate and blessed to be surrounded by such a great group of UNF faculty, staff, administrators, students, and alumni. I’m grateful to all of you for helping me to reach this point, which means a great deal to me.

 

  As all of you know, it took me several years to be able to stand here and have the honor and pleasure to address you. I was selected twice as a Distinguished Professor runner up in 2016 and 2017. That’s typical to almost everything I try to accomplish in my life; persistent trials with much struggle to achieve a goal, several setbacks, many failures, then maybe a success.  I remember, over thirty years ago, I kept trying for years to pursue my PhD in Europe or North America after finishing my Master’s degree. My Mom and Dad comforted and embraced me while I kept receiving many rejection letters, admission letters without enough scholarship, more rejections, and finally a success. Then when I was travelling in 1989 to pursue my PhD in North Carolina, my parents struggled to hide the tears in their eyes at Cairo airport saying goodbye. My Dad was a civil engineer building bridges, tunnels, and dams. He got his civil engineering education at Cairo University in Egypt and his professional training was in France and Sweden in the 1950s and 60s.  Given his life experiences, he encouraged me to travel knowing the importance of international exposure. My mom’s studies at the Law school at Cairo University in the 1950s made her very analytical and logical in making decisions and giving sound advice. I love and miss my parents so much. They fostered persistence and dedication to pursuing our dream no matter how long it takes or how hard it is. I learned from my parents’ persistent support for my sister, while raising her two sons, to successfully pursue her medical MD degree at Cairo University, her Master’s and PhD, and to admirably fulfill her demanding job as the chair of the Department of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. I learned through my parents support for my brother to successfully earn his engineering degree and establish a very successful engineering firm in Egypt. Our parents have been an inspiration to us, and their example continues even after they passed away. Their spirit of persistence resides in me for I am trying to emulate them by supporting and encouraging our UNF students and my children - Mariam a junior at the University of Florida “UF” pursuing her premed degree, Summer an 11th grader at Bolles, and Adam, a 5th grader.

 

  I see this support and encouragement to persist past failure as a central theme in my life and an important goal for us as teachers to pursue. I always urge my children and students to try, fail, process, reflect, accumulate knowledge, learn from failure, try again, fail again, try, and then succeed. It is fine to have failures, but with persistence one will eventually reach success. I tell my students that failure is part of learning and most likely will be the key to success. I learned that very well from engineering projects and even from the construction of the ancient Egyptian pyramids. I have learned that throughout history, we have experienced unfortunate structural failures, including bridge collapses. Yet, these failures prompt us to gather invaluable information, learn critical lessons from failures, deepen our knowledge, sharpen our skills, and enhance our future design, construction, maintenance, repair, and monitoring. The failures we experience provide essential lessons to achieve success.

  But persistence through initial failure is not the only important virtue.  Community is important as well. I naively thought that engineering, science, and technology alone were sufficient to advance our lives. I had the honor to lead faculty groups on international academic visits to Turkey, Morocco and Egypt to establish and maintain research initiatives and exchange programs. And, I thought I was the expert who knew it all, till I learned how limited my knowledge was and still is. When touring the Pyramids in Giza, the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, and historic places in Egypt, Turkey and Morocco, my knowledge was only focused on the engineering aspects. However, it was amazing to learn from my UNF colleagues about the culture, society, and history of the ancient Egyptian civilization, the cultures of Greece, Rome, Persia, China, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and the Aztecs. Thanks to my knowledgeable colleagues, my lack of knowledge turned into a rich learning experience. I also have led and co-led student groups on Study-Abroad and International TLO service projects to Ghana, Morocco, and Germany; and honestly I learned a great deal from my colleagues and students during these travels. Our interaction helped me develop cross-cultural awareness and learn to teach using experiential learning. Few years ago, I was a guest lecturer at a university in Cologne, Germany and had to present very dry topics. After several rehearsals, I was able to improve my presentations through integrating practical examples from my industrial experience and embedding video clips of my lab testing. The students and faculty got very engaged and interacted positively; and after the lecture, they were knocking on the desks with their hands and knuckles. Before I got worried, my dear German colleague reassured me enthusiastically with a big smile that this knocking is a kind of applause expressing appreciation. I was encouraged to interact more and exchange a great deal of information with the German audience that broadened my horizons and deepened my knowledge. Later, I conducted a successful study-abroad with UNF students to learn the history and structural engineering in Germany. I also initiated collaboration in Japan and Italy to establish joint research and exchange programs; and my students and I learned from a remarkable American architect many lessons on the history, culture, and preservation of historic structures in Italy. Talking and traveling with knowledgeable faculty taught me about the history of nations and that the history is marked by great events and accomplishments of remarkable individuals whose impact is significant, not just in construction, but in science, culture, economics, and technology. I learned that a vibrant community of learners from multiple backgrounds and perspectives is the best way to advance knowledge, and the best way to have a positive impact on our UNF students and to advance their careers. 

 

  One of the areas of my academic expertise is prestressed concrete that you see in bridges and buildings. When I started teaching prestressed concrete, I failed to connect with my students. Then I was fortunate to partner with industrial firms and the Prestressed Concrete Institute (PCI)-foundation. With their help and my persistence, I succeeded in improving my lectures and the students started being excited and having a good learning experience about today’s great successes in design, fabrication, and construction of millions of landmark structures using precast and Prestressed concrete. They enjoyed learning about the history and evolution of prestressed concrete that resulted in a boom in reconstructing bridges in Europe that were destroyed during World War II.

 

   With persistence and learning from my failures, along with the support of my community of scholars and industry professionals, I was fortunate to lead UNF student teams to win regional and national competitions, collaborate and lead faculty research teams from 8 universities, secure about $2.5 million project funds, including a national grant to establish the 1st PCI Engineering Design Studio in the US, and publish a textbook and 90 journal and conference papers. I was blessed to receive a national award by the PCI “The Educator of The Year Award”, and awards of “Fulbright Scholar” and “Fulbright Specialist”. 

 

  But my experience is not unique. Although I am the one being recognized today, there are many of you who are doing amazing work.  As we speak, almost 17,000 UNF students are being inspired by the teaching of our knowledgeable and dedicated faculty. Do you know what I think is unique about UNF? It’s our passionate professors who spark enthusiasm, create a culture of active learning, light the fire of curiosity, foster students’ critical thinking and creativity, engage in our community, and not only engage with our students, but invest in their overall well-being.

 

  My daughters, Mariam and Summer, used to ask me when they were young, “Dad, what do you really do or accomplish?” They basically question the impact of professors. I kept telling them that thousands of lives are being saved every hour as a result of rigorous academic research and teaching that contribute to advances in medical science and innovations in engineering. My answer did not convince them enough, till my daughter started pursuing her premed studies at UF and volunteering at Shands and Mayo Clinic. She started realizing that indeed thousands of patients are being cured with new medicines and innovative discoveries. To convince my children more, I shared with them the news on adaptive toys that help children with physical disabilities by the combined efforts and innovations of physical therapy and engineering at UNF. I explained to my children that we proudly work in an aspirational community where we take on big challenges in our research and teaching. Thus, challenges do not become setbacks or roadblocks, but offer us opportunities to do remarkable work. I constantly share with my students and my children how graduates from UNF and other institutions have contributed to designing, constructing, improving, and maintaining many resilient bridges, buildings, tunnels, roads, and new water, energy, and transportation systems to improve our lives. Every day, a new invention or innovation emerges in engineering that enhances our overall wellbeing. I think my children were either convinced after my persistence in providing success stories or they just got bored and gave up asking.  But do you think I stopped? No, I told my children and students: Remember, Apple was on the verge of bankruptcy 20 years ago, but Steve Jobs clear vision, sound plans, creativity, and partnership with his competitor, Microsoft, turned things around to make Apple now the most successful US company that tops a market valuation of $1 trillion. Also, 10 years ago Elon Musk’s vision became a reality after years of many setbacks, three failures, hard work, and then one success that converted the two struggling companies of Tesla and Space X from being on the verge of bankruptcy to today’s very successful companies.

 

  At the beginning of the new academic year, it is important to remember that it is our individual and collective efforts as faculty, staff, and administrators that create a unique and healthy learning environment. Today, we are fortunate to witness a great progress at UNF because of these efforts across all of our colleges. Our accomplishments have earned national and international acclaim. We challenge our students, embrace their failures, support and inspire them to pursue success. That combination of challenging our students to persist and supporting them as a community is a huge strength of UNF.   

 

  Yet, with all of these successes, did we realize our full potential? Despite our dedicated efforts in providing a rich learning environment that has significantly increased students’ progress and growth, the state metrics are not reflecting our dedication. 

 

My colleagues, now more than ever, our job is to acknowledge the challenges before us, learn from the failures behind us, and turn those failures into successes. We will leverage our resources, our competitive advantages, our skilled faculty, and our supportive industry to achieve giant leaps of progress and sustainable success. We will work collaboratively to provide a healthy environment and an enjoyable freshmen experience, attract remarkable students, retain and motivate them, support and help them persist, graduate, and place them in successful careers. We will keep inspiring and engaging our students in hands-on experiences and experiential learning. I believe that with a renewed focus on what we do best, challenging and supporting our students, the metrics, as well as our outstanding student learning, will eventually reflect our success.

 

My colleagues, as we look toward the future, let us face our challenges and overcome our difficulties and limitations together. Let us continue transforming education to meet the rapidly changing world and emerging challenges. I suggest we build bridges of understanding, remove the barriers of misunderstanding, and pave the road for partnership. Let us work alongside each other in a grand, diverse community of learners, who reach across boundaries, barriers, and differences, share in our diverse experience and expertise, and build a successful future together. We will become stronger and more successful. We not only can but we will transform challenges into success and with that we will realize our full potential.

 

  Thank you.