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Engineering a World of Difference: Syed Taha

Published May 31, 2012

This story is the sixth in a series of six Values in Action profiles that highlight the Texas A&M core values.

Story by Elisabeth Kent
Video by Jamie Arrexi and Nicole Smith

Syed Muhammad Taha recently completed his junior year in Texas A&M at Qatar’s Chemical Engineering Program. At first glance, he seems like every other student in the Texas A&M Engineering Building. He spends countless hours in lab sessions and the library. Beyond these activities though, Syed is challenging engineering stereotypes through his leadership of the Council of Debating Engineers (CODE).

Syed traces his interest in debate to high school and the beginning of his University years. “Freshmen students tend to come to University and join every club, just because there are so many exciting opportunities offered on campus,” he said. “I started off that way, but once I joined 10 clubs, I realized there were two or three that I was actually passionate about. Debate was the most important of these.

“When I came to Texas A&M at Qatar, there was a debate society in name, but it didn’t actually do anything. I wanted to get it started again and revitalize it. People come to university with interest in activities like debating, but that interest dies down because they think this is just an engineering school. When we started CODE, we only had three or four members. Today, only a year and a half later, we have over 30 members.”

What drives Syed’s passion for the organization? He sees himself as more than just an engineer.

“People ask me all the time how an engineer can love debate,” he says with a smile. “When I decided I wanted to become an engineer, I never wanted to be just an engineer. I don’t want to stop doing the other things I love, and I don’t think I need to stop doing those other things to be a good engineer. I can excel in academics while debating or leading the newspaper society.

“An engineering education has given me technical knowledge, but these activities are preparing me for life after graduation in other ways. For instance, debating builds critical thinking skills and makes people strong communicators. I think these are vital in the workplace. If an engineer can write and talk, he can get a lot of work done. Of course, technical knowledge is important, but these extracurricular activities such as debating shape a person’s personality and skill set.”

Syed says his perspective on extracurricular activities is already paying off, citing an interview with a local corporation as an example of how employers value his unique experiences.

“I walked into the interview, and they told me I was the only chemical engineer they had called for an interview,” Syed recounted. “They went on to say they didn’t usually have spots for chemical engineers, but they had looked at my resume and been intrigued by my extracurricular activities. I asked if this was a good thing, and they said it was impressive because their company wanted more than just engineers. They wanted well-rounded individuals. The interview went well because I was able to demonstrate how I am becoming a strong engineer through Texas A&M at Qatar’s top academic program, but also a well-rounded individual through these other activities.”

For Syed, loyalty – one of Texas A&M’s core values – begins with himself. He is committed to being loyal to who he is as a person, even if that leads him to unique pursuits such as debating. He says, “I’m loyal to who I am as an engineer, but also to the rest of me, the person who brings more to the table than just engineering.”

That loyalty has led Syed and CODE through over a year of increasingly prominent debate successes. Syed recounts the organization’s journey saying, “At first, we just went out and participated in QatarDebate tournaments and events. None of us had any prior debate experience in Qatar. We had debated in our home countries in different formats and had been involved in Model United Nations, but British parliamentary debate was new to us. We started training ourselves by watching videos online and participating in local tournaments.

“By the end of the first year, we had won eight best speaker medals in Qatar tournaments and one trophy for best team. We then went to France and won the SciencesPO IV 2011 tournament.

Syed and his CODE companions are now branching out from competing in debate tournaments to also promoting debate on the Texas A&M at Qatar campus.

“We hosted a student-faculty debate this past year,” said Syed. “We brought in professors and had four students and four professors on each side of the debate. Over 60 people attended the event, and that is a big step forward in bringing debate to our campus.”

Syed’s experiences leading CODE and participating in debate have shown him how he hopes to engineer a world of difference.

He remembers one significant moment from the SciencesPO IV 2011 tournament in France, saying, “One of the judges told our team, ‘You’re an engineering school. What chance do you stand against these political science majors?’ Although that comment seemed offensive to us at the moment, I hope to engineer a world of difference by showing the world that an engineer can be more than just an engineer.

“I have researched the philosophy of engineering. I have debated. I have written a student newspaper. Yet at the same time, I am a strong engineering student and have participated in technical research. With this background, I am ready to challenge the stereotypes associated with engineers by showing the world that I am both an engineer and a well-rounded individual. I’m loyal to who I am, and I’m grateful to Texas A&M at Qatar for opening doors for me to excel in multiple fields and areas of interest to me.”