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Community Perspective

The students building a bridge to Alaska’s future

In early April, the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Engineering and Mines steel bridge team dominated a regional design competition held at St. Martin’s University and now stands ready to compete at the national finals in Carbondale, Illinois. Again.

Standing out among the hundreds of top-tier engineering colleges joining this tournament annually, the UAF team has placed in the top 10 at nationals in three out of the past four years. This year our money is on UAF to win the whole thing. They’re just that good.

That the UAF team has been a national front-runner in the steel bridge competition for decades is no accident. Their legacy of excellence stems from the very same qualities that constitute what many of us term the Alaska spirit: audacity, creativity, self-reliance and tenacity.

Audacity is the ability to believe in oneself. The team is audacious enough to recognize that engineering excellence originates from within and that a small school on the edge of the Arctic can outcompete the biggest names in the business.

Creativity is the standard currency of the engineering profession. At UAF, engineering students develop creativity by working with teams — teams in which innovative notions are polished through a diversity of perspectives.

Alaskans tend to value self-reliance, a tradition that originated with the first people to cross the Bering Strait and populate a wild, unforgiving land. For the steel bridge team, self-reliance manifests in the tradition of fabricating its own bridges. While most other teams around the nation design their bridges on computers, then contract with professionals to cut, machine and weld the steel, UAF students do it all themselves. Every single piece.

Tenacity develops not only through a student’s dogged pursuit of a demanding degree program but also through the rigors of our everyday Fairbanks lives. Stuff breaks here, and when it breaks, you fix it and move on. Sometimes it is 40 below out, and when it is, you put on a scarf and walk to class anyway. As a product of their environment, the UAF steel bridge team is uniquely qualified to overcome the inevitable hurdles associated with a national-level design competition.

The steel bridge team, of course, is just one example of the excellence engendered on Troth Yeddha’ — the hill upon which UAF stands. Similar points of light shine all around the College of Engineering and Mines, all across campus, all across town and all around Alaska. UAF witnesses excellence in the classroom, in research laboratories, in extra-curricular educational activities and on the athletic fields. The University of Alaska Fairbanks is providing students with a competitive, well-rounded and place-based education that simply cannot be found elsewhere.

However, UAF’s past and future triumphs are dependent upon strong community support. The steel bridge team, for example, has long been sponsored by the Associated General Contractors of Alaska, the American Society of Civil Engineers, individual donors and numerous local firms. Other teams in and outside of the engineering college are supported by myriad private and commercial entities, all seeking to enhance the quality of education we provide. Perhaps most importantly, the parents and family members of our students provide immeasurable support for the rigors of a college education.

Alaska will find its way to a prosperous future. The trail will be blazed by citizens who are audacious, creative, self-reliant and tenacious. The University of Alaska Fairbanks is in the business of producing just such citizens, and it does it very, very well. Congratulations to the upcoming graduates of UAF’s numerous degree programs. We’ll be celebrating your achievements in Fairbanks and at community campuses around the state during the next couple of weeks. Also, let’s applaud the UAF steel bridge team and wish them the best of luck at nationals. Once again, they’ve illustrated just how much can be achieved at a small university on the edge of the Arctic. Go Nooks.

Bill Schnabel is dean of the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Engineering and Mines.

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