The University of Missouri–St. Louis/Washington University Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program impressed Haiyan Cai straight away.
First, there was the unique partnership itself. Then, there were the program’s bonds with the community and potential employers such as Boeing. Also, the quantity of scholarship resources available. And evening classes that allowed students to work while in school and to graduate with job offers.
If all that wasn’t enough, there were also the students – serious pupils who asked questions, were diligent about attending classes and always completed homework.
“The program – it’s special,” Cai said. “It’s very different. It’s challenging.”
Which is an excellent view for the associate professor of mathematics and computer science to possess considering he assumed the mantle of associate dean last semester.
When word first reached Cai that the associate dean position would be opening up, he immediately was intrigued. He liked engineering students, having taught them regularly in calculus and 200-level math courses.
He knew he could bring administrative experience to the role. After two years as chair of mathematics and computer sciences, Cai had been invited to work as a program director at the National Science Foundation, where he stayed three years before returning to chair at UMSL for another three years. He figured those eight years had primed him for engineering.
“Haiyan’s new position requires interactions with a wide variety of individuals who rely on the joint engineering program and UMSL in different ways,” said Joseph O’Sullivan, joint engineering dean and WashU Samuel C. Sachs Professor of Electrical Engineering. “Promoting and representing the program to prospective students and their families, current students and alumni relies on those diplomatic skills that Haiyan has obtained over his career. The same skills are crucial with faculty who teach in the program, employers and donors. Our program has an added layer of complexity resulting from our partnership with Washington University. I am confident that Haiyan Cai is the right person to help lead us in all of these areas.”
Last semester, Cai worked closely with outgoing Associate Dean Bernard Feldman. Cai was impressed by the amount of time Feldman spent interacting with students, working on student services, scholarships and community and alumni outreach.
That semester was a critical juncture for the program, as it went up for reaccreditation by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. Cai felt lucky to have Feldman as a resource during that process while learning the ropes. He also appreciates the support of O’Sullivan and UMSL Provost Kristin Sobolik.
“I think this is a unique program nationwide,” Cai said. “The program is particularly suited well to the students who are nontraditional or are from a not-so-wealthy family or first-generation college students and also students who have a job. I’ve been talking to many students. One thing, which is common from all of them when I asked, ‘What’s the strengths of the program?’ – they like the possibilities that they can work full time during days and just come in to take classes. So that really gives them an advantage competing for a job in the market.”
Though his No. 1 priority will be to maintain the quality of the program, Cai sees some room for innovation in storing information digitally and increasing enrollment through increased community awareness. The substantial scholarship resources that the program has built thanks to the efforts of faculty and staff is one of many possible attractions for prospective students.
“I like to see the enrollments growing because it’s such an excellent opportunity,” he said. “Every one of us is working pretty hard to make this program successful.”
Cai may feel for those opportunities more keenly as he, too, used education to revolutionize his place in the world.
He hails from China’s Fujian province and attended undergraduate school at Xiamen University. Though he initially intended to study physics, Cai got “stuck” on math and, after graduating in 1982, set his sights on the U.S.
“I wanted to study because I was curious,” he said. “I had so many dreams – ridiculous, ambitious dreams.”
Cai decided that if an opportunity arose to study abroad, he would take it. So, when he was accepted into the mathematical statistics PhD program at the University of Maryland, College Park, Cai took the leap. UMSL recruited Cai upon his 1988 graduation, and he relocated to St. Louis, where he’s lived since. He’s found that both the area and his work here suit him.
“You are free; your mind is free,” Cai said. “You can do so many things, pursue so many things you want to pursue. I can’t think of any job better than being a professor in a U.S. college, in an American college. I’m happy with my life.”
When he isn’t teaching, Cai and his wife enjoy traveling internationally and spending time hiking and camping in national parks, especially Grand Canyon, which they’ve visited five times. On such trips, he practices photography with his Nikon D-810. His others hobbies include reading history and philosophy and writing essays, an activity that he feels transports his mind to a different world.
“It’s kind of a relatively simple life for me, for us, but we are happy and appreciate everything we get,” Cai said. “Now, I just want to help students. It’s from the bottom of my heart. I enjoy seeing their success and thinking anything I can do, I will help them. In this position, I think there’s a particular advantage for me to do what I really want, to help the kids.”