May 29, 2019

Engineering a better future

Mahmoud Abuqalbain ’18 came to Wayne State to build his future. He never dreamed he would help build the university’s along the way.

Born and raised in Amman, Jordan, Abuqalbain made the decision at 16 to come to the United States to continue his education. He decided on Michigan, mostly out of necessity. The only person he knew in the U.S. happened to live in the Mitten State. Despite the frigid winters, it was an easy decision to make. Abuqalbain could read and write in English, for the most part. Holding a conversation, however, was something he had to work through.

“Speaking-wise, my English was terrible. I would ask for water and people would not understand what I was saying,” says Abuqalbain, now 23. “I really wanted to be successful. I was very driven and determined. I realized that in order for me to be successful, I needed to have good communication skills. My main focus the first year I got to America was to learn English.”

That determination paid off.

While earning both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in the College of Engineering, Mahmoud Abuqalbain has been working in the field as a project engineer to help build the Anthony Wayne Drive Apartments and STEM Innovation Learning Center.

Fast forward to May 2017. With a year left at the Wayne State College of Engineering to earn his bachelor’s in civil and environmental engineering, Abuqalbain attended a career fair on campus. A Gilbane Building Co. recruiter — who happened to be the construction manager of Wayne State’s newest student housing, Anthony Wayne Drive Apartments — was there to fill internships. Abuqalbain impressed him and landed a spot. Six months into that internship, with four months left until graduation, Gilbane extended a full-time offer to Abuqalbain.

“After I got hired on, I asked the recruiter, who was now my boss, ‘Why did you pick me?’” Abuqalbain recalls. “He said, ‘Honestly, Moe, when I talked to you, I liked your personality, the way you communicated with me.’ At that moment, I realized that when I had decided to learn English in order to be successful and communicate well with people, it got me my first job after college.”  

For nearly two years, Abuqalbain worked as a Gilbane project engineer to help construct the Anthony Wayne Drive Apartments, WSU’s largest student housing project. He quickly rose through the ranks and was on hand when the initial wave of students moved into the 407-bed, 11-story center tower of the apartment complex in August 2018. It was the first phase of the three-tower project that features apartments with full kitchens, courtyards and retail storefronts for student convenience. The second phase is on track to open this June. The completed complex will offer 841 beds in 406,800 square feet, providing reasonably priced home-away-from-home comfort to Warriors in Detroit’s desirable Midtown neighborhood.

“It’s a good feeling to know that I’ve helped with something that affects so many students in a positive way,” Abuqalbain says. “There’s a special connection between me and this project. It’s a project at a place where I lived, went to school and worked.”

Renewed focus

Abuqalbain admits he wasn’t the most diligent of students before moving to the United States. Back home, he would skip a class or two and didn’t care much for education. That all changed when he arrived in Michigan.

“I was very scared to miss this opportunity, to the point that I never bought a TV, an Xbox or a PlayStation while in high school. I didn’t want any distractions,” Abuqalbain says. “I focused mostly on learning English.”

Mahmoud Abuqalbain speaks with middle schoolers at a recent career fair at Riverside Academy East in Dearborn about the kind of work engineers do.

He credits Kristin Nagle, his math teacher at Central Academy high school in Ann Arbor, with inspiring him to become an engineer.

“Because of her, I realized I was good at math. Back overseas, I was never good at math,” Abuqalbain says. “I decided I wanted to be a civil engineer, which was crazy at first, especially to my father who is also an engineer. He didn’t realize how well I was doing here.”

After taking the ACT four times, bringing his score up from 17 to 21, Abuqalbain applied only to Wayne State. “I knew I wanted to come here,” he says. “It has great accreditation; people recognize it all over the world. Wayne State has a well-known engineering program. Other universities were not ideal for me or they didn’t have the program that I wanted. Wayne State was the university I wanted to go to.”

Before landing his Gilbane job, Abuqalbain earned money delivering pizzas and doing restaurant work. He also was a University Towers front desk assistant, eventually becoming a residential advisor there.

“I had to support myself — somehow, someway. I worked two, sometimes three jobs at a time,” he says. “I’ve worked with a carpenter and as a mechanic at an oil change place — I would do multiple things to generate income.”

And even though Abuqalbain now has an established career and a steady paycheck, he still finds extra avenues to generate income. This Monday-through-Friday engineer dances on the weekends.

His Mawtini Dabkeh Troupe employs 15 dancers who perform traditional Dabkeh and Zaffeh processions at Arabic weddings, festivals and ceremonies. They can be seen on campus every so often (and in the video above), practicing their routines. Abuqalbain says, “We travel all over the United States and Canada representing the Middle Eastern culture.”

And he continues to advance in his career. In January, Abuqalbain took a new job as project engineer for Granger Construction. The position allows him to continue helping shape Wayne State’s campus — he is currently working on a renovation project that will transform the Science and Engineering Library into the STEM Innovation Learning Center. This state-of-the-art center will bring a number of high-demand science, technology, engineering and mathematic programs under one roof with classrooms, labs, a makerspace and hackerspace, and plenty of potential for high-tech collaboration.

“Our students and faculty will use the renovated facility to pursue STEM education, research and careers, while the state will benefit through their investment in workforce development to meet future talent demands that will keep Michigan competitive and growing,” says President M. Roy Wilson.

Even as Abuqalbain worked to enhance the academic experience for future students, he continued his own studies on campus. He crossed the commencement stage a second time this spring, earning his master’s in civil engineering with a concentration in construction management.

“One of my goals was to graduate with my master’s by the age of 24. I wanted that, and that’s why I’ve pushed hard to do it,” Abuqalbain says. “It’s amazing to think that in seven years, I went from a person who was very worried to ask for water to where I am now.”

This story originally appeared in the spring/summer 2019 Wayne State alumni magazine.