Wei started out as a professor of electrical engineering at SJSU in 1987 and became a full professor in record time. By 1998, she was Chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering, and became Dean of the College of Engineering in 2002.
When Wei and I spoke by phone recently, she told me her journey into academia was not a given at the outset of her career. She said it required no small amount of soul searching to make the move into education. "However," she said, "I finally decided that a career in education would allow me to work on technology projects, but also give me the opportunity to innovate with young people and have an impact on their lives. At the time, I felt the one important and satisfying side of [working in] education was that it would give me that balance between research and teaching."
Today, Wei is enjoying her 19th year as a faculty member at San Jose State University, where her diverse interests range from VLSI design and optimization, to materials science, and the business and culture of technology and development in an increasingly global economy.
Topping it all, however, is her enthusiasm about the university: "I continue to be thrilled to have an opportunity to provide this rich educational experience to our engineering students. The best part of teaching here at San Jose State University is that we're at the heart of Silicon Valley. This is such a dynamic place! There are so many opportunities for collaborations and partnerships here, and the chance to work with the very best and brightest in industry and academia. We constantly involve our students in this process, and are able to really see them flourish and blossom in this environment."
Stimulating technology opportunities notwithstanding, I asked Wei about the filter today that seems to be eliminating so much potential engineering talent here in this country, everything from prejudice against nerds and geeks, to the idea that engineering is just for that isolated, anti-social, math and science whiz.
Wei responded, "For whatever reason, people want to categorize other people, and that works against recruitment into engineering schools. In addition, there's unfortunately somewhat of a culture of exclusivity in engineering - an implication that lesser mortals need not apply."
Wei said San Jose State University is doing a lot to overcome those attitudes: "Because we do such an excellent job of reaching out to under-represented populations, we have women and Hispanic students who might not otherwise consider engineering as a viable career option. [In addition], forty percent of our student body is foreign-born. And that includes many Spanish-speaking students, students who are Vietnamese, Chinese, and so forth. Whether newcomers or first-generation Americans, these students share a similar experience. They have a particular 'agony' in common - the agony of being new and different."
Wei herself has a connection to that 'agony.' She emigrated to the United States from Taiwan with her parents at the end of high school, and she herself had to deal with the challenges of adjusting to a new life and a new culture far from the one she had grown up in. Quoted in the San Jose Mercury News in May 2003, Wei said, "We had the experience of a typical immigrant family. The kids helped the parents resettle because they didn't speak the language.'
Now years later, Wei has combined her own hard-earned expertise in bridging cultures, her training in science and engineering, and her desire to further educational outreach for students at SJSU, by founding and continuing to lead a most extraordinary program within the College of Engineering - a visionary program closely watched by universities across the country.
To far-off shores
San Jose Sate University's now-annual summer study tour of China and Taiwan - the Global Technology Initiative (GTI) - is one of the most high-profile parts of the opportunities Dr. Belle Wei and her associates at San Jose State University have assembled on behalf of their students.
Each year, immediately after the end of the spring term, 25 carefully selected SJSU engineering students travel with various faculty members to Taiwan and China to take a first-hand look at those emerging economies. With a million dollars in funding from a range of California-based companies, most "with strong business ties to both Silicon Valley and the Asia-Pacific region," the students, and their faculty guides, have an intense 2-week travel schedule that includes visits to a variety of industrial and academic locations on both sides of the Straights of Taiwan.
Wei told me, "The Global Technology Initiative provides students in the program with a distinctly life-altering experience. The students on this trip have an extraordinary opportunity to meet industry leaders in Taiwan and in China - global technology leaders, in fact - and at the same time, are able to witness the manufacturing and engineering activities that reflect the realities of truly global cooperation and competition. We started the China trip two years ago, and each summer now are choosing 25 lucky students to travel on this all-expenses-paid tour of Taiwan and China, where we visit a combination of universities and business locations."
"The trip represents wide-spread support from Silicon Valley, comprised of this one-million dollar endowment. We see that as the most crucial part of the Global Technology Initiative, because it comes with the single-minded purpose of providing a global perspective to these lucky students, with a particular and timely emphasis on the Asia-Pacific technology environment. Importantly, the trip also represents a successful reaching out to under-represented student populations who, because of their environment and background, might not otherwise have the opportunity to be exposed to such a variety of experiences and geographies."
Wei told me the GTI scholars travel from Taipai, to Beijing and Shanghai, and other locations as well, visiting facilities associated with global companies such as Microsoft and Intel, and other smaller, regional companies. The students also have a unique chance to meet with Asia-Pacific investment firms to better understand the changes underway there, and the business opportunities available across the region.
She said, "The trip is a transforming experience for these students - a total paradigm shift. Without actually seeing these places in person, there would be no way for them to extrapolate from their experiences here and understand how dynamic and global those locations are there. Throughout their two weeks of travel, the students cross paths with a mixture of local residents, tourists, and people of all sorts of nationalities - Arabs, Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, a parade of people. Overall, it's an extraordinary experience!"
She added that it's not just about being tourists, however, for the GTI scholars; they're not done when they return home, because the group is required to report back formally to their classmates in San Jose. Through these presentations, Wei said, the audience at San Jose State University is clearly able to see what is going on in Taiwan and China through the eyes of the students who have taken the trip.
Wei said, "When we select the students for the GTI trip, we want to know that they will have a larger impact on the engineering student body at San Jose State University as a result of the project. Obviously, if they were chosen to take the trip, these students are already doing a good job with their studies. However, our GTI scholars [must also step up] as student leaders and share their experiences with their fellow students. Almost 200 people attend these [post-trip] presentations in an auditorium on the San Jose campus." She added that the presentations are very well received.
The tough questions
At the risk of interrupting Dr. Wei's enthusiasm, I asked her at this point in our conversation to address the widespread perception in the U.S. that Asia's economic and technology advances portend the decline of North America's own prospects for the future.