Against great odds, including two wars, Kamal Rojiani spearheaded his own destiny
January 16, 2015
A passion for living and learning resides in Kamal Rojiani's soul, starting with his early childhood when he was born in 1948 into the then war torn country of India, forcing his family to move when he was six to Karachi, Pakistan. Pakistan was a safer place for his family who practiced the Muslim religion.
His father, an orphan who spent much of his youth growing up on the streets, struggled to get his education. His persistence allowed his entry into the civil engineering profession, with his professional career spanning the move from India to Pakistan. Working for the Pakistan government, Rojiani's father was able to provide his family, including two sisters and a brother, with comfortable housing, and a ticket to the British educational system.
As a young boy, Rojiani excelled in learning, graduating at the top of his class from the British School system in Karachi. His high school diploma was actually a certificate from Cambridge University.
His teenage summers provided him with an insight into the career path his father chose.
"I spent that time with my father, and he would take me to projects he was working on," Rojiani recalled. Originally, "he wanted me to become a mechanical engineer or an architect."
Rojiani opted for architecture and was accepted into a small college in Lahore, Pakistan, but his father intervened the night before he was supposed to board the train for that college, telling his son he would have a better chance to pursue his graduate degrees abroad if he attended engineering classes at the University of Karachi.
His father's wisdom eventually proved insightful.
So, Rojiani continued to live at home, motor biking to school daily, except when political unrest closed the university for what would have been his junior year. He took advantage of the time off to excel in one of his favorite sports, table tennis, and actually played in the country's national championship games that year.
When he was able to return full time to the University of Karachi, academics were again his passion, and he graduated third in his class, missing first place by a mere five points out of a total of 1800 points.
However, there was another war with India, and engineers were not allowed to leave the country when Rojiani graduated in September of 1971. He had successfully applied to Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, and when the opportunity presented itself three months later, he quietly bought an airline ticket one morning, and was on the plane that evening for the U.S.
"No one had a chance to stop me," he recalled.
As Rojiani departed down the steps of the plane at O'Hare Airport, he thought he had "entered the loneliest time of his life." He traveled with one suitcase, no coat, and no idea how to get to the IIT campus. He found a fellow countryman at the airport who told him about the subway system.
He boarded the train, got off at the designated area, and stood in snow for the first time in his life. He was miserable. But the campus police found him, took him to a dorm, got him some warmer clothing, and allowed him to stay there even though IIT was closed for the Christmas break.
Rojiani immediately met several Pakistani natives that first night. They advised him against attending IIT, so in the morning he jumped on a Greyhound bus headed to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
In what most might consider a bold move, he found the civil engineering department head's office, was admitted for a meeting, and he started telling his story.
Fortunately, the administrator was sympathetic, and started checking on the application Rojiani had submitted to this school. They both discovered he had already been accepted, but since mail was not being delivered in Karachi, Rojiani had never known of his admittance. Luck turned out to be on his side.
He started that January. However, his father was only paying for the first semester, so Rojiani put himself on a fast track, managing to get his master's degree in two quick academic terms.
During the summer between the spring and fall semesters, he returned to Chicago where he had a Turkish friend who employed him as a dishwasher for the night shift at a 24 hour restaurant for 14 hours a day, seven days a week, earning $1.50 an hour. To save money during those three months, he lived with six other Pakistanis in a rented apartment.
Life started to get a little easier when he received his master's in February of 1973. The University of Illinois offered him an assistantship to stay on and pursue his doctoral degree.
He worked with Alfredo Al-Ang, one of the top civil engineering professors specializing in structural reliability in the world at that time. He also worked with a young assistant professor, Y. K. Wen, who he says was his "real advisor who was kind and nurturing." His doctorate was on the reliability of tall steel buildings to wind loadings.
While in graduate school, Rojiani found some time to pursue one of his hobbies, dancing, and he enrolled in classes ranging from folk to ballroom to disco to square dancing. To him, the classes were a respite from the daily courses heavily laden in mathematics and technology. But the ballroom instructor, a Latino with excellent rhythm, assigned a grade of "B" to Rojiani, the only "B" the intellect ever received.
When Rojiani earned his doctoral degree in December of 1977, Virginia Tech had an office waiting for him.
A year earlier, Rojiani had responded to an ad that said the Blacksburg university was looking to hire someone in the reliability area. An interview with then department head Richard Walker, along with Ray Plaut and Sigfried Holzer, also members of this area of concentration in civil engineering, secured him his lifelong job at Virginia Tech.
"I was very nervous inside but I had a calm demeanor," Rojiani recalled.
Early on in the 1980s when computers were beginning to become a part of the college curriculum, Rojiani found a niche for himself. He became the department's "computer guy", directing the creation of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering's first computer lab, a showcase facility. He taught the first computer applications in civil engineering course, and was soon asked to conduct workshops all over the country.
Rojiani directed the Civil Engineering Computer Aided Engineering laboratory for six years, and wrote two textbooks on programming for engineers: Programming in BASIC for Engineers, written in 1988 and Programming in C with Numerical Methods for Scientists and Engineers, published in 1995. Some 65 universities adopted his textbooks.
He currently has his third and fourth books in progress: Programming in C ++ for Scientists and Engineers and Numerical Methods for Engineers -- An Object Oriented Approach. Both are about 90 percent completed.
Rojiani is the recipient of two College of Engineering Certificates of Teaching Excellence, awarded to only four engineering faculty members each year. No wonder he received these awards.
One of his former students, Harrison Pickett, commented, "Professor Rojiani was an incredible teacher. Not only has he mastered structural engineering; he has mastered the understanding of how students obtain knowledge in the most efficient manner. After taking his class I have gained an understanding of the material that I will keep for long into my career. No other teacher I feel has been able to do this for me like he has. Pickett took theory of structures and computer applications for civil engineers from Rojiani."
Another student, Jane Bui, added, "A lot of students think he is tough. ...But he is like a parent in a way...and in the future you realize, like your parent, he was right all along."
Rojiani's versatility and depth and breadth of knowledge is demonstrated by the fact that he has taught 20 different courses not just in civil and environmental engineering but also in several other engineering departments such as engineering education, engineering science and mechanics, and electrical and computer engineering. He has taught introductory and advanced courses in structural analysis, structural design, structural reliability, computer programming, computer applications, and software design.
Rojiani's research in the area of structural safety and reliability includes reliability based design methodologies, reliability based optimum design, reliability analysis of steel, concrete, and timber structures, reliability of tall buildings subjected to dynamic loads, code calibration, reliability analysis of bridge foundations, and stability of structures under random loads.
One of his research projects required him to develop load factor design criteria for highway bridge foundations, and the results of this study formed the basis for the new American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Load and Resistance Factor Design (LRFD) specifications for bridge foundations. He was also a member of the code calibration task group that developed the load and resistance factors for the AASHTO LRFD code for highway superstructures.
Rojiani's research in the area of computing includes expert systems for structural design, user interfaces, CAD based pre- and postprocessors, programming methodologies, verification and evaluation of structural analysis and design software, finite element modeling of buildings and bridges and development of object-oriented software for structural analysis and design. He has also developed a set of web-based applications for teaching structural engineering.
Service to the profession and the university have always been a high priority for Rojiani. He has an exemplary service record. He has served on several ASCE technical committees and has two American Society of Civil Engineers' (ASCE) Outstanding Service Awards.
He has also served on numerous university, college and departmental committees including as chair of the University Computer Committee, the University Committee on Workstations and Personal Computers, and the Engineering Faculty Organization. He has been a member of the Faculty Senate (for four terms), University Council, and the Commissions on Faculty Affairs and University Support to name a few.
He has served the civil and environmental engineering department in many capacities including as the coordinator of the Structural Engineering and Materials Program, and as a faculty academic advisor for eight years responsible for advising approximately 80 students each year.
During this busy time of his career, he also raised two children from his first marriage, a daughter who is now an architect working in New York City, and a son who has a degree in psychology and is currently obtaining a second diploma in computer science at Virginia Tech.
Rojiani also brought his mother from Pakistan to live with him after his father died in 1997. After a few years, she, a college educated woman who tutored students, obtained her U.S. citizenship, but eventually had to relocate to a nursing home.
When Rojiani retires this month, his immediate plan is to remodel the 8,800-square-foot house he and his wife Deni bought on 11 acres of land in the Ellet Valley section of Blacksburg. He plans to pursue his many other interests including woodworking, photography, working on cars, stained glass, pottery, tennis, and more recently golf, and writing books and software. They also hope to travel all over the country in their motor home with their two dogs, Cabriola and Buddy, the latter being a rescue dog.
And he claims his wife, who is already retired after owning her own businesses, is an excellent cook, and they never have the same meal twice in a year. She can cook Thai, French, Indian, Chinese, French and more, and "every day is a new experience," Rojiani smiled.