Originally published at World Minded https://www.wm.edu/offices/revescenter/publications/worldminded/2020-fall/2020-fa-intheirownwords.php
I was born and raised in Damascus, the capital of Syria. Often called the “City of Jasmine,” it is rich in culture, history, and heritage. I grew up in the southeast area of the capital, close to the old city where I spent good parts of my days walking in its alleys and neighborhoods observing the distinctive architecture that represents multiple generations of civilizations from the ancient days to today’s world.
From Syria to the U.S.
After graduating from college and venturing out into various jobs and some business endeavors, and as my fiancée (now my wife) and I started dreaming of starting our family, we decided that it might be the time to take the next step—to pursue higher learning goals and make a move to see how life would be in America, the land of opportunity. My wife’s aunt and her husband lived in Huntington, West Virginia – where Marshall University is located – and thanks to their incredible generosity, we were able to move there.
I took a summer course before I was fully admitted to the Master of Information Systems program. I also volunteered at the College of Engineering before I became a graduate assistant until graduation. Soon after I graduated, my wife joined the program and, a few years later, graduated with honors. By that time, my daughter was born. And with the support of many of our American friends and church families, it was clear to us, that America had become our family’s home
I had an amazing journey at Marshall, full of personal milestones that brought joy to my family and me along the way. Starting as a student achieving my goal to graduate with 4.0 GPA, then landing a job at the competitive IT department of the university; being asked to teach in the classroom, and growing personally and professionally through the ranks to reach the role of director, deputy and eventually the CIO. All were moments of pride. But the most rewarding accomplishment that I will continue to carry with me with honor is when I was surprised by the selection as the recipient of “Dedication to Student Life Award” by the student body. In my view, it is the highest recognition for me as an administrator or professional working at a university whose mission is to serve its students.
I always felt that it is a responsibility to step in whenever there is an opportunity to be involved in collaborative efforts in society and be useful in supporting the community surrounding us. I had the honor to be involved in various activities around the university and in the town and state where we lived.
I was fortunate to serve on a few boards in the community—including my family’s church board, my kids’ school board, and Huntington’s “Gigabyte City” economic development initiative, and some state committees. I appreciated the opportunity to serve and collaborate.
Finding a calling and a career
I have always loved tinkering with electronics and was curious about how TVs and radios worked. When I took my first basic programming course in middle school, I was fascinated by how we can create intelligence from an empty screen. However, I did not consider technology as a field of study or work. I was drawn to arts and design, so I joined the College of Fine Arts.
After studying painting, sculpture, graphic and interior designs, I decided to pursue a specialization in interior architecture hoping it would provide me with more career opportunities. Both graphic and interior designs became heavily dependent on technology tools, so I started learning software and built myself an affordable computer from parts. I found it profitable to build and sell computers between art jobs. I also learned how to develop websites and software and joined a group of software developers in a startup building custom software for small businesses.
Next, I started my own business selling computers, networks, reselling software, and building custom software and websites targeting small businesses during their conversion of business processes to digital. I knew that I needed to go back to college to study technology academically, so I later obtained my Master of Science in Information Systems and PhD in Information Technology. I did so while working in the fields in higher education and health care.
While I consider my professional life as a hybrid of arts and science, I see immense value in the overlap and harmony. I also see how both utilize the utmost creativity—whether starting from a white canvas or empty computer screen—by envisioning a non-existent output going through the creative process to create a new, original work.
The value of technology and W&M’s IT Team in a pandemic
Technology has become critical to every business, and during the global pandemic, technology was a ‘lifeline’ to many industries including education. While the increased demand required IT teams to mobilize and spend many more hours and energy to support students in learning, faculty in their teaching, and staff in conducting their functions successfully, it was a rewarding opportunity for all IT professionals to step in and help the institution and the community they belong to.
We are privileged to have a creative, hardworking, dedicated, and professional team who has done extensive work in preparing a solid foundation and capabilities that were able to expand to fulfill the increased needs during the transition to remote working and learning. I am extremely proud of belonging to Team IT in these moments of responding to the challenges facing our generation.
Empathy and creativity in innovation and customer service
A key method to be successful in any service is to have empathy. The deep understanding of the experience of those who come to us seeking help is so important in the IT field. The other quality that we aspire to instill in our team is humility. The fast pace at which the world of technology is moving keeps us humble as we continue to learn the new developments. We all use technology and we, ourselves, feel frustrated when it doesn’t work as designed.
I am encouraged by new trends in the business world. One is that people are now looking at IT folks as strategic partners and innovators. They now come to IT when dealing with a challenge or an opportunity asking for creative ideas and partnership, knowing that working together leads to success.
The other trend that I am experiencing is the shift in mindset of what capabilities technology can bring. It is driven by having powerful devices in our pockets, the amazingly advanced AI tools in our homes and offices and the vast number of cloud services we use every moment of the days. All of this is allowing higher tolerance and acceptance of change and a tremendous appetite for innovation in work and life.
These trends are opportunities for IT teams to transform the institutions they work for and empower the people they serve with cutting edge technologies.
Technology as a tool in global education
There are many ways that technology can continue to support international communities.
Technology has repeatedly helped breaking the language barrier through the automatic translation of webpages and documents.
Lecture capture tools, even for in-person classes, have offered international students, or any students, to replay the course at their own pace after class to catch what they missed or didn’t understand.
More recently, with online and remote education becoming more prominent forms of instruction, technology is enabling automatic transcription and translation of spoken words in real time, allowing international students and participants to better understand the material.
The mobile devices with enough power and storage to carry most documents in our pockets are indispensable when traveling abroad. The use of cloud storage like Box or OneDrive, allows access to those documents in real time and collaboration with colleagues across continents. Also, high-speed internet and virtual private networking (VPN) connect remote devices securely to the university resources regardless of where the traveler is and what devices they use, including High Performance Computing clusters to run their research or various software systems used on the university network.
Leveraging communication tools and social media platforms to connect with prospective and interested students abroad ensures they learn about Reves and engaged with the team of supporting professionals.
Looking ahead at W&M
While I am still new to W&M, and we are continuing our work responding to the pandemic, I am discovering incredible potential opportunities to engage with students, faculty and the community:
- IT has been a supporter and partner to efforts engaging students in STEM-related activities, like Esports. I hope we will also be able to sponsor activities in national collegiate cyber defense competitions, supporting the establishing of a robotics club and participating in international robotics competition to working closely with the computer science department to help in game design clubs.
- On the academic side, technology can help leverage online education to non-traditional students. I’m committed to Increasing access to all students, especially first-generation and low-income students.
- I’m also interested in broadening our global presence and expanding our relationship with international students, faculty, staff and institutions.