Engineer's Gift Helps Build Community Resilience Program at Iowa State
Vilas Mujumdar left India with $8 in his pocket, the maximum allowed by the country in 1964. The 23-year-old had been promised a job in London, but getting there proved to be a challenge.
Fog had diverted the plane to Switzerland. When he finally landed in England, he bought a sandwich and a train ticket to the city. By the time he arrived at his new apartment, he was all but broke. His landlady let him move in anyway based on his job offer.
Mujumdar was a newly minted civil engineer, filled with ambition and a love of adventure. He began his new job and applied for membership in the prestigious Institution of Structural Engineers. Having passed the rigorous entrance exam, he discovered he was too young to be admitted. After just one year, he left London for Montreal.
Montreal was already in the throes of preparing for the 1967 World's Fair when Mujumdar arrived. He found work as a project engineer for the ambitious futuristic housing complex, Habitat 67. Designed and built for the air — and still occupied and historically recognized today — Habitat 67 satisfied the young adventurer for a time. When completed, Mujumdar was ready for a new challenge. He traveled to Boston to serve as an engineering consultant.
It was there that his focus began to shift. Still a self-described "sucker for challenges," the type of challenge became more important to Mujumdar. He realized he wanted to help others. He relocated to California and began work for the State of California as chief of operations for the Division of the State Architect. He also earned his doctorate during that time. With a new professional focus on earthquakes, he began to see the importance of human resilience in the face of any natural disaster. The new focus led Mujumdar to join the National Science Foundation.
"I've seen a lot of suffering," Mujumdar says today. "Helping communities become more resilient helps everyone. Here in the Midwest, you have tornadoes, ice, floods. Farmers ask, 'How can I get my farm back? How can I grow crops again?' The answer is in education."
Now retired, Mujumdar has underscored his passion to bolster community resilience by helping establish Iowa State's multidisciplinary Hazard Mitigation and Community Resilience Program through a multifaceted gift that included cash and a charitable remainder unitrust.
The program's educational goals harken back to lessons learned from his mother, who taught rural women and children free of charge after she earned her own high school degree. "My foundation of charity grew from my childhood," he said. "My mother's giving back was the example. She wanted to do something for her community. It rubbed off on me.
"My main focus is to help educate students in a multidisciplinary way, not only in engineering but in social sciences, economics, public policy and cultural differences," he said. "Giving money after a disaster helps, but building capacity in humans can make a lasting impact. You need to work together with several disciplines to do that."
Mujumdar said he chose Iowa State because of the university's commitment to multidisciplinary research. "You need to learn to draw on different disciplines to be able to protect the whole community," he said. "Iowa State is an excellent fit."
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