Growing up in Chandigarh, India, Karanpal Singh received his undergraduate degree from the nearby PEC University of Technology.
For a student from a “middle-class family with limited financial resources,” studying at a top-flight American university not only seemed out of reach; it was not something he had ever thought about. No one in his family had ever been abroad.
But on his college’s website, he found out about a UC Berkeley fellowship established by another PEC alumnus with the same surname but unrelated, Awtar Singh (Ph.D. ’66 Civil Engineering). That fellowship opened the door to a new world.
In August 2012, Karanpal Singh made his first-ever trip outside India to begin a master of science program in civil engineering at Berkeley. His emphasis is on structural engineering, mechanics and materials. “Had there been no such fellowship, I could not have even thought of going to the U.S. for higher education,” he wrote in an email.
Because of fellowships funded by forward-looking alumni, faculty and friends of the university, promising students such as Karanpal Singh can now achieve opportunities that were once beyond their dreams. Many donors were former fellowship recipients themselves, whose Cal education propelled their success in industry and their commitment to give back.
It takes a partnership to fund the fellowships that enable Berkeley to compete with private universities for top graduate students, and maintain its position as a leading research institution. Recognizing this need, since 2006 hundreds of Berkeley professors have made philanthropic gifts to the University and established graduate student support funds matched by the Office of the Chancellor. The Graduate Division has reserved matching funds for fellowship gifts from alumni under the aegis of its Graduate Fellowships Matching Program (GFMP). More than 60 fellowship funds have been established campuswide by alumni donors, creating an endowment pool worth $16.9 million. Thirteen of these fellowships have been established in the College of Engineering alone.
The matching program bolsters the efforts of alumni, corporations and other friends of the University who have set up fellowships to say thank you, to honor a professor, to honor an employee, to give back. Some of their stories are below.
Berkeley alumni pool resources to honor Professor William Oldham
As T.Y. Chiu (Ph.D. ’83, EECS) and John Hui (Ph.D. ’83, EECS) tell it, Professor William Oldham was more than a faculty adviser. “He was our mentor. He gave us very good training,” says Hui, senior vice president for R&D at Pericom Semiconductor Corp. in San Jose.
In addition to guiding the students’ research and critiquing their writing, Oldham organized social activities, taking his grad students on ski trips to the Cal Lodge near Lake Tahoe. The students developed strong ties with their professor and with one another.
“We worked in the same lab, we had fun events and (became) quite bonded,” says Hui.
Nearly 30 years after receiving their doctorates, those bonds remain. These alumni get together at least annually, often with Professor Oldham. As Oldham approached retirement around 2003, Chiu and Hui came up with a proposal to honor their professor while helping their alma mater. They rallied the group to inaugurate a $500,000 endowed fellowship in Oldham’s name. The donor group also includes Konrad Young, Simon Wong, Mark Liu, Gino Addiego and Sanjay Mehrotra.
“We all appreciated his contributions to our education, to our growing up,” says Chiu, during a visit to Silicon Valley from Shanghai, where he is CEO of SMIC (Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation). “I think he set a very high standard for us. Based on what we got from him, we have leveraged our education very successfully.”
With matching funds, the goal is to raise at least a million dollars. But the Oldham Fellowship organizers have a larger goal: to inspire other alumni to similarly honor their beloved professors by setting up fellowships named for them. Chiu says he would be glad to advise them on the nuts and bolts. “There are probably plenty of small donors who, like us, would like to pool together to honor their professors,” he notes.
Current electrical engineering Ph.D. student Filip Maksimovic, the 2011-12 Oldham Fellow, says the funding allowed him to focus on his coursework in integrated circuits, specifically, low-power wireless biological sensors. He was also inspired by the opportunity to meet Oldham and the fellowship donors, “all extremely successful professionals in the semiconductor industry. It was a nice experience meeting them.”
Navis founders thank their guide, Professor Bill Webster
When Jonathan Shields (B.S. ’79 ME, M.S. ’82, Ph.D. ’86 Naval Arch.) and Erik Tiemroth (B.S. ’79 ME, Ph.D. ’86 Naval Arch.) were undergraduates, Professor William Webster guided their studies in naval architecture, helped them gain scholarships from the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, and hired them as consultants at his own company, Ship Research, Inc., where they applied new computer technology to optimize the stowage of containers for American Presidents Lines.
“Despite spending most of his adulthood in academia, Bill was a surprisingly adept businessman,” writes Shields, who recently returned to the Bay Area after living in London. “He provided a model of integrity, political sensitivity and solid judgment that I believe I successfully adopted into my business career.”
Webster “gave us an opportunity to learn the business side of consulting and software development,” adds Tiemroth, who returned to Berkeley after completing his master’s at MIT. He now lives in Oakland.
After earning doctorates, Shields and Tiemroth founded Navis, which made software to manage the movement of cargo through terminals. That business, sold in 2007, grew from a startup above Jim’s Wig Shop in downtown Oakland to become a leading global provider in the industry.
“The ‘Great Recession,’ as it is now called, officially began two weeks after the sale, Lehman Brothers collapsed a few months later, and it was clear that if there was ever a time for philanthropy it was then, and it continues to be,” Tiemroth observes.
To assist their alma mater and honor Webster, now professor emeritus in Civil and Environmental Engineering, the retired entrepreneurs and wives Pamela Shields and Kirsi Tiemroth contributed $500,000 to establish the William C. Webster Graduate Fellowship. Launched last year to encourage high-achieving students to come to Berkeley, the fellowship will aid a first-year Ph.D. student in industrial engineering and operations research, mechanical engineering or civil engineering.
Adds Shields, “I am proud to have the opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way to Cal, especially now that I have the perspective to reflect upon the tremendous impact Cal has had upon my life.”
VMware honors Cal alumnus with $800,000 gift to his alma mater
VMware could have honored Michael N. Nelson (B.A. ’83 CS, M.S. ’86 EECS, Ph.D. ’88 EECS) with a gold watch and a handshake for his groundbreaking contributions to the Palo Alto cloud technology company. Instead, for the first time in its 14-year history, the company in 2012 set up a fellowship, endowing an $800,000 fund to support graduate computer science programs at UC Berkeley. (In this same year, the company also created another $800,000 fellowship honoring another VMware engineer, Ole Agesen, at his alma mater, Stanford.)
Berkeley’s Mike Nelson was the lead architect of VMKernel, virtualization software that enables companies to isolate and run multiple operating systems simultaneously on a single server. He also led the development of the first product to enable a running virtual machine to be moved between servers, minimizing downtime.
Charles Fan, senior vice president for R&D, says, “Mike Nelson has a phenomenal ability to cut through the technical maze and reach to the essence of a technical problem. He is also a true practitioner who prefers to speak with working code (rather) than with words. Again and again, his code speaks eloquently and turns into industry-changing software.”
“Ultimately, the people that work here are our most valuable asset, “says Nicola Acutt, director of the VMware Foundation, describing Nelson as “extremely brilliant and extremely humble.”
VMware, she adds, “thinks of itself as an industrial research lab with strong academic roots,” committed to the education of future engineers. “Rather than a gold watch, we’re giving a gift that continues to give in perpetuity,” she says. “We will be funding a graduate student forever in Mike Nelson’s name.”
Once-struggling student paves easier path for Punjabi engineers
Awtar Singh (Ph.D. ’66 Civil Engineering) remembers all too well what it was like as a financially strapped student from India. After hitchhiking from Boulder, Colorado, where he completed his master’s degree, he got a loan from UC Berkeley’s credit union and bought a car for $250. Income his wife Teji earned babysitting, coupled with a fellowship, helped them “pull through.”
After a successful career as a civil engineer, in India—where he oversaw construction of the hydroelectric power plant of the Bhakra Dam—and in California—where he recently retired from his consulting business—Singh was in a position to shield other students from the hardships he endured. In 1998, he set up a fellowship for civil engineering graduates of India’s PEC University of Technology (formerly Punjab Engineering College), where he completed his undergraduate studies, to pursue advanced degrees at UC Berkeley. Thanks to the Graduate Fellowships Matching Program, and an additional $100,000 gift from Singh, the Awtar and Teji Singh Fellowship Fund in Civil Engineering has now reached $500,000. In addition, when he dies, the University will be the beneficiary of his IRA.
Widowed since 1997, Singh, 85, who has no children, had already given money to relatives in India, “people I know,” but decided it was even more worthwhile to “give to the people I don’t know,” providing stellar students from PEC an opportunity to continue their studies at UC Berkeley.
“The best students should come to America at my cost,” he said during a phone interview from his home in Encino. “I had a lot of hardships. They should not.”
— Janet Silver Ghent