Smitesh Bakrania '03 always knew he would study engineering in college. What he didn’t know – at least not until he came to Union – was that he was destined to teach it, too.
“I was taking a thermal fluid systems course with Professor Ann Anderson, and at the conclusion of a team-based project, we had to do peer evaluations. David Chapin ’02, who was a year ahead of me, wrote in my evaluation, ‘Smitesh should be a teacher. He approaches things in a very academic way.’ I shared this with Ann, who remarked, ‘You do have a knack for explaining things in a way that educates.’”
Smitesh had never considered becoming a teacher, but Professor Bill Keat also believed he was well suited to faculty life. “You present things as though you feel it’s your job to educate others in the room.”
From thereon, Smitesh was committed to obtaining a Ph.D. and teaching at the university level.
“I applied to big schools and ended up choosing the University of Michigan,” Smitesh recalled. “Moving from Union to Michigan was an abrupt change, but attending a large university made me realize what I loved most – the personal connections with students. I had benefited from that close teaching and mentoring at Union – a factor that still drives me.”
As an international student, Smitesh spent most of his breaks and summers conducting research at Union.
“I wasn’t able to travel home to Tanzania during breaks, but all the time and energy I devoted to research at Union enabled me to shift relatively easily to Michigan. I worked on thermochromic liquid crystals and aerogel research with Ann Anderson and Mary Carroll, and had close working relationships with several other Union faculty members, including Ron Bucinell, Frank Wicks and Brad Bruno.”
“I was especially fascinated by Frank Wicks because he often talked about engineering history. I still read his articles, which I frequently use to inform parts of my syllabi.”
This year, Smitesh won Rowan University’s college-wide award for excellence in teaching, the Lindback Distinguished Teaching Award.
“It was very touching to receive this honor,” he observed. “My passion lies in making connections with my students and engaging with them to a point where they share my excitement. That drives most of the things I do as an educator.”
“I owe much of my professional path to my father. I originally wanted to study physics, but my father, who owned a woodworking business and wanted to be an engineer himself, explained that I needed to know physics in order to pursue mechanical engineering. It didn’t take long for me to grasp that this meant I could actually use physics and get paid.”
When it came time to apply to colleges, Smitesh discovered Union because of his high school counselor.
“I spent my last two years of high school at an elite international school where I had received a scholarship. Most of the students there were not from Tanzania, and they planned to go abroad to college,” he said. “This made me – as well as my future wife who was also a student there – aspire to also apply to schools abroad.”
“My counselor gave me a list of schools to consider and advised that I avoid the big schools. ‘Go somewhere that will value your uniqueness and assist you financially,’ she recommended, and Union was on the list.”
Smitesh’s first term at Union was tough, but he found friends and a peer group amongst the international students on campus, and his first-year roommate, Rob Mathews ’03, became his best friend.
“I was homesick and felt like an imposter at times, but I knew I had been given an incredible privilege, and in that awareness was the drive to work hard and prove that it was all worth it.”
And it was, even the challenging parts.
“Rob and I wanted to go to New Zealand through Professor Kenney’s economics course. I realized I couldn’t afford to go, so I dropped out of the class. When Rob returned from his trip, I remember being absolutely mesmerized by his photographs.”
“Fast forward 15 years to 2018, and I was finally able to get to New Zealand. I won a Fulbright award and my family and I were there for six months. It was an incredible experience, and very humbling as well, to learn all these different perspectives about the rest of the world. I decided there and then to make sure that my students at Rowan have these opportunities.”
In 2023, Smitesh will take his first group of students to Germany to give them a sense of how manufacturing works from original concept and design through to production.
“I chose Germany, because it will cost much less than traveling to New Zealand, but I still look forward to exposing my students to a different culture, a different history and the social aspects of interacting with other cultures.”
Smitesh is married to Lopa Bakrania, who also received her Ph.D. in organic chemistry at University of Michigan. They have two children, ages 8 and 11.