An engineer without borders: Through service and studies, Emmanuel Smadja widens educational impact


May 17, 2006 — Emmanuel Smadja crossed borders to come to the University. In his six years here, he has traversed many more. And as he embarks on his career, crossing borders will continue to be a way of life for this young man, who lives by his belief that “even the smallest of our actions can make a huge impact in someone else’s life.”

An international student from Lyon, France, Smadja has been passionate about ethics, different cultures, technology and computer science from a young age.

When it came time for college, Smadja knew he wanted to study abroad. He researched schools online and ultimately chose U.Va., sight unseen, because of its status as a public institution and its Honor System.

While on Grounds, Smadja — who speaks French, English, Spanish and German and knows just as many computer languages — put this knowledge to use. Not only in the degrees he earned, including a bachelor’s in computer science and cognitive science in 2004 and, come Sunday, a master’s in systems engineering, he also put it to use in serving communities, near and far.

Smadja has been a mentor in U.Va.’s Day in the Life program since its inception in 2002. More recently, he has been a tutor through his fraternity’s Lambda SUNS (Students United Nearing Success) program, “an ESL program to help high school students with their homework and to make them feel comfortable with themselves,” he said. And last year, he participated in an Engineers Without Borders project that took him to Nicaragua.

As an undergrad, Smadja heeded the call of the Day in the Life program, which needed mentors to pair with area middle school children, to show the socio-economically disadvantaged youth that college was within their reach. Smadja was paired with a then-sixth-grader, Marvin Brown.

“He’s a very bright young man and a brilliant cello player,” Smadja said of his mentee, now a Charlottesville High School junior, who’s been offered early admission to Harvard.
With all of the students he’s mentored, Smadja said he hopes he’s helped them believe that “college could be a reality. … The kids have the ability, but think because of language barriers or lack of money that college is beyond their reach. They have the attitude of ‘why bother.’ I try to break those stereotypes.”

Smadja’s message seems to have reached Brown. Day in the Life supervisor Danny Wilmer also credits Smadja with helping the program win the commonwealth’s 2005 AmeriCorps VISTA Governor’s Community Service and Volunteerism Award for the Outstanding National Service Program. “Every time [our office] called on Emmanuel, he delivered with a wonderful sense of love and compassion for his fellow man. I will not be the least bit surprised to hear something great from this young man before my life is through,” Wilmer said.

Though born and raised in France, Smadja has been an advocate for U.Va. Latino issues. He became the graduate adviser for the Society for Hispanic Profesional Engineers, helping organize a weekend event, “Juntos Podemos” (Together We Can), for prospective Latino engineering students. He also tutored minority students every Saturday morning through Lambda SUNS.

Smadja extended his efforts beyond the local communitiy when he and other engineering students went to Vera Cruz, Nicaragua, last year to help out at orphanages and to assist in expanding a bakery where women work to support themselves and their children.

“Emmanuel is an impassioned man, whose thinking and working are both rooted in his personal commitment to social change. ... I don’t think he has illusions about changing the world, but he is clearly determined to influence those in his own organizational environment toward being conscientious in their endeavors,” said Smadja’s professor and mentor, Rosalyn W. Berne, associate professor of science, technology and society in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Smadja, who won the 2005 Lorna Sundberg Scholarship given annually to an international student who demonstrates academic merit and service to the community, said his experience at U.Va. has been “great, very enriching academically.

“The beauty about the University of Virginia,” he wrote in an essay on volunteerism, “is the amount of freedom it gives us. I’m not sure whether it has to do with student self-governance, or if it is more deeply rooted in Jefferson’s philosophy, but from the first day you step on Grounds, you realize that you and only you determine what you want out of your education. As international students … we can either decide to live confined in the bubble of the University, or we can live with our eyes wide open and realize that there is a greater community around us. … U.Va. offers a plethora of ways we can reach out to others, and even the smallest of our actions can make a huge impact in someone else’s life.”

On May 4, the same day he turned in his master’s thesis, Smadja gave a presentation on U.Va. Latino concerns to Vice President and Chief Officer for Diversity and Equity William Harvey and other student leaders and alumni. Smadja told them that U.Va. needs to create a center for Latino affairs, similar to the Office of African-American Affairs; that it needs to establish a Latino studies major or department; and that it needs to form a liaison program to recruit and retain Latino faculty, staff and students.

Immediately following this presentation, Smadja boarded a plane for Vera Cruz to visit a fraternity brother and follow up with some of the orphans he’d befriended on his earlier trip there before returning to U.Va. this weekend for graduation.

After processing down the Lawn on Sunday, the almost-25-year-old will waste no time in crossing more borders. He has a two-year management commitment with  chemical corporation, Celanese. “It will be me and lots of MBAs,” Smadja said. His first six months will be spent in Dallas, followed by six months in Mexico, six months in Spain and six months “somewhere back in the United States.”

Smadja hopes to use the experience to return to Nicaragua eventually. Before the country can develop a successful tourism trade, he explained, it needs to be cleaned up. He would like to apply his expertise to starting a recycling business there.