Global Leaders at Five

11/12/2009 8:25:00 AM

By Laura Weisskopf-Bleill

Less than a year into his tenure at Chicago’s W.E. O'Neil Construction Company, Numan Velioglu (BS 06, MS 07) found himself in a strange city singing karaoke and being wined and dined by Chinese executives.

As a graduate of CEE’s Global Leaders in Construction Management master’s degree, Velioglu had a skill set and the experience his company wanted when they needed to send an employee abroad to procure materials. When a trip to China surfaced, Velioglu got the call.

“Half the [W.E. O’Neil] employees don’t have passports. I’m there managing my own trips, going to cities I’ve never heard of,” said Velioglu, who spent his time in China inspecting wood flooring purchased for a high-end retail project in Chicago. “I probably did 15,000 miles in a week.”

Velioglu is a prime example of the type of well-rounded engineer the Global Leaders program has produced since its establishment in 2005. The Global Leaders experience gives students an opportunity to visit major construction projects around the world while broadening their knowledge of construction management through courses in disciplines such as law, labor, and business.

As it celebrates its fifth year, the Global Leaders program is in a position of strength. Its alumni are in demand by industry; students are eager to enroll; faculty are determined to see the program continue to thrive.

“Now that we’re five years into it, what I can say looking back is that candidates that we’ve hired out of the program have been some of the strongest young employees we’ve added to the company,” said Pat McGowan (BS 86), the vice president of W.E. O'Neil Construction. “They have just a tremendous upside. They are the types of employee that we want to invest in more, in terms of development and training. Long term, they can be great leaders.”

One-on-one exposure to industry leaders is a major component of the program, be it in Urbana or abroad during the Global Leaders trips. Students have found their dream jobs directly because of such connections.

And it’s not just traditional construction companies who are attracted to the Global Leaders students, but recruiters from other industries, most notably the oil industry.

“We have companies recruiting who say, ‘Do you have more Global Leaders?’” said associate professor Liang Liu.  “I think that’s a great confirmation and compliment to the program but at the same time we are very humbled by this kind of response.  We have the responsibility to make it better and to serve the student better and the industry better. These are all important things.”

Monica Lim, who graduated in the Global Leaders program’s first class of four students, returned to campus this fall to direct the Global Leaders program, succeeding Carlos Arboleda, who returned to industry. Lim sees the program as bridging the gap between engineering and other fields. Its unique external focus sets it apart, she said.

One of her goals for the program is to cement its identity.

“We’re trying to close in on what ‘global’ truly means,” said Lim, who worked in construction firms for three years in Chicago prior to returning to Urbana. “It’s not just Japan or Dubai, but it’s also having a good understanding of what’s happening at home.”

The program, which is only open to current Illinois CEE seniors, is attractive to students because it requires just two semesters more of coursework.

“Early on in engineering I was so frustrated with the straight calculations. You don’t really have an idea of where you’re going with that,” said Kevin Bayci (BS 09), a Global Leaders student.

Admitted in the fall of the senior year, the underclassmen engage with the program immediately by traveling with the graduate students on the winter trip. This builds relationships and creates continuity that loops through the years.

Trips remain one of the program’s highlights. Each student goes overseas twice, and also participates in two domestic jaunts in the spring.  The trips are targeted to show students how large-scale projects are managed, planned and controlled. As an important team-building exercise, each student plays a role in planning and researching the trip’s itinerary.

The current Global Leaders students will travel to Europe in January. They will visit major construction projects connected to the 2012 Olympics in London, and then continue to Germany to see examples of that nation’s cutting-edge sustainability practices. Previous destinations included Japan, France, Dubai, Panama and China.

The site visits illustrate that one size doesn’t fit all in construction. Labor relations, safety standards and sustainability practices vary by cultures and regions. Last winter’s trip to Panama last year was an eye-opening experience for Kevin Foster (BS 09).

“The chaos of the construction—it was nuts,” he recalled. “It was like a free-for-all. It was kids on a playground or something—people everywhere. It was fun to see how different it was from here.  It was something you could not be exposed to unless you were actually there to see it.”

While the program hasn’t grown tremendously in size since its inception—it is deliberately kept small to maintain a low faculty-to-student ratio—it has increased its stature. With increased marketing and awareness, the program attracts a deeper pool of applicants. The competition has resulted in top-notch classes that improve each year.

“We’re certainly producing a good mix of students that are thinking big in terms of job opportunities,” Lim said. “They are creative, looking for places where they can add value and where they can make a difference.”

Both current students and alumni would like to see ties with industry continue to develop and deepen, especially with multi-national corporations.

“When we were in Dubai we were able to get in touch with major developers and CEOS were able to court us,” said Robert Kuang (BS 06, MS 07), an assistant project manager for Bovis who rooms with Veliglu in Chicago. “It was a great experience to have that kind of exposure.”

The international learning experience is key to the success of the program and its value to students. Due to the rigors of the curriculum, traditional study abroad is rarely an option for undergraduate engineering students. It’s a concept that other departments within the college may import.

“Expanding the horizons of our undergraduate and graduate students by working with them in different engineering cultures around the world prepares them for the global marketplace,” said CEE department head Amr Elnashai. “I hope that we will have the means to expand this program beyond construction management and perhaps outside of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department.”

As the world gets increasingly smaller, international exposure and experience may become the standard for students in any discipline. The Global Leaders program gives CEE students a competitive edge while providing a basis of knowledge that its graduates will be able to reference as they enter the workforce and climb the career ladder.

“You can really take this program in a lot of different areas, because the companies like the international exposure, that perspective of the entire system throughout the world and being able to piece different parts of the company together to see how it all relates,” Bayci said. “We live in a world that is increasingly interconnected.”

Photos, top to bottom:

Global Leaders students pose on a trip to Panama in 2009.  Eighth from the left is Associate Professor Carlos Arboleda.