Gabriel Dadi had always wondered what it would be like to be on the court during a University of Kentucky men’s basketball game at Rupp Arena.
On January 30, 2018, he got to find out.
Enveloped by a sea of blue during a time-out in the midst of UK’s home game against Vanderbilt, the civil engineering associate professor and five other faculty members were honored at half-court as 2018 UK Alumni Association “Great Teachers.” The student-nominated award is the longest-running University of Kentucky award that recognizes teaching.
According to Department of Civil Engineering chair Reg Souleyrette, civil engineering faculty have been honored more times than any other department in the UK College of Engineering, celebrating 12 winners since the distinction was first given in 1961. So the department’s most recent awardee is in good, and rare, company.
“Gabe Dadi is a perfect example of how you can be a great researcher and a great teacher while maintaining an excellent attitude and maintaining a healthy work-life balance,” Souleyrette affirms.
“This is one of the—if not the—greatest honors of my career,” says Dadi. “The evening of the acknowledgement, a lot of my colleagues and family were there. It was special to share that with people who have helped me get to this point.
In his nomination letter, civil engineering graduate student Zamaan Al-shabbani, wrote that Dadi, “…teaches his classes in a way that makes students interested in the material and in attending class. He always encourages students to ask questions, and he elaborates answering the question to cover all aspects of the question in detail.”
Dadi says that knowing everybody learns differently compels him to teach material from multiple angles.
“If you’re not aware that people learn in diverse ways, it can be easy to deliver content only in the way you like to receive it. Then you’re missing out on the majority of your students because that’s not how they learn.”
From Louisville, Dadi studied civil engineering at UK and completed an MBA through the college’s BS/MBA dual-degree program in 2008. He says his business background comes in handy in the classroom and during office hours.
“I tell my students, ‘Whatever your major or career path, you’ll have to have some kind of business knowledge to be successful long term.’ It also helps me advise students, especially those who are considering the dual-degree program or starting their own business.”
Dadi has also found having an MBA to be invaluable for navigating multi-disciplinary, multi-institution grant-funded research projects.
“These days, running a research project is like running a small business,” he explains. “It used to be that a research project had a sole principal investigator who obtained the money and, other than some student support, completed the project alone. Now, you’re managing a large amount of money, faculty and graduate students in multiple places, schedules, deadlines and your own publication goals. There are many business aspects involved in running a successful research project and having an MBA has helped with that.
Dadi’s primary research area is construction safety. He began teaching in UK’s Department of Civil Engineering in 2013—about the time the university began its campus transformation.
“Having construction sites right here on campus is very convenient. I’ve been able to able to take my classes to residence halls, the new baseball stadium, the nearly-finished student center, the Jacobs Academic Science Buildings and more,” Dadi recounts. “It has also been great for our students because many of them have been hired for co-ops or full-time jobs.”
In the end, it is all about students for Dadi. He knows how a college degree can completely change the direction of one’s life. It happened to his parents, who were the first in their families to graduate high school, then obtain college degrees.
“My mom grew up in generational poverty. She knew getting an education was her way to a better life. My dad was a goat shepherd and farmer in Ethiopia who came to the U.S. to get a college education. In my classes, I have domestic and international students, so I know I may be teaching students with circumstances similar to my mom and dad. They may be here to set their future family on a new trajectory just like my parents did years ago. It drives me to do my best every day.”