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Instilling Confidence

March 1, 2021 Jim Warner
Dr. Haleh Karimi

Dr. Haleh Karimi’s twenty-year journey in IT has provided her with the experience and empathy to inspire tomorrow’s professionals beyond the technical demands. At the core of the best teachers and mentors is a capacity to take a spark and bring it to flame — providing the oxygen-rich atmosphere that ignites imagination and illuminates a room. Spend a few minutes with Dr. Karimi, and you’ll learn that what fuels her is also what shines in her students.

“I think the whole purpose and mission of education is to get these graduates ready for the workforce — specifically for their long term. So [we must do] anything that we can do to equip them with the knowledge they need not just as entry-level professionals, but with the self-confidence to flourish, grow, and hopefully do some good out there in the world.”

For Dr. Karimi, building a bridge between the technical skillset and soft skills is crucial to professional success. As a recent PhD, her research was predicated on the impact of soft skills in the IT field. Understanding the software and the programming is only half the equation — its mastery is lost without the ability to communicate and express those talents to others.

“As I started my studies, I encountered peer-reviewed articles that spoke of the demand for soft skills in graduates, and it resonated with me,” says Karimi. This study took her back to her experiences in the corporate world, including tenures at Coca-Cola and Colgate Palmolive. “When I was working at Coca-Cola and hiring for entry-level [positions]… I could see a distinction between students coming from UofL and those from other entities. [These students] just had better overall interpersonal skills.” In the years since, this rift between soft skills and STEM has only increased, according to Karimi. “There’s a huge gap that is not going away, and it’s vividly obvious amongst entry-level students going into the workforce.” As a result, Dr. Karimi studied this gap by looking at Louisville’s health care industry, with 27 various local organizations taking part in the qualitative study. “The question as educators is, ‘Are we equipping students with the right skills that the future will need and what is it that we need to do?’” For those taking part in the study, those skills in demand include leadership and an understanding of one’s humanity.

For her part, she has worked to engage these spaces in CIS 420 by exposing her students to real-world projects that reflect the larger community. As a higher-level course, the students entering CIS 420 already have the technical, programmatic skills down; allowing for the class to be an application of their gained knowledge as well as soft skill competencies. Students work in teams on a real-world project to present a tangible product by semester’s end. In this course, they learn the nuances of working in teams, solving problems, and meeting their deliverables. Often, solving these problems moves beyond the software and programming into more complex, nuanced spaces. “At times, I allow them to be in the gray area and use their leadership, humanity, creativity, and critical thinking skills to lead them towards finding their optimal solutions that work for their team,” says Karimi. “This path fosters their soft skills competencies and builds their confidence… I want them to attain that self-confidence so when they go into that interview, they have been exposed to so many [real-world] scenarios that they know what to say and how to articulate what they did in this course.” Beyond the experience, the CIS 420 course gives the students a tangible takeaway, professional portfolio pieces that demonstrate the theoretical made real. In her CIS 310 course, “After they gained the foundational knowledge and technical information, I ask them to deliver assignments that are portfolio quality pieces they will be proud of,” says Karimi.

Born in Iran, Dr. Karimi came to the US as a teenager and had a passion for learning instilled in her at an early age. “My mom always used to say that investing in education is an asset no one can take away from you, and wherever you go, you will have it. As a young lady in IT and an immigrant in a foreign country going into a male-dominated field…education [and what it offered] was embedded in me.” In many instances, Dr. Karimi was often the sole female IT professional in her department or serving in a leadership capacity. The degree opened doors, but as her career as a programmer progressed, an opportunity came that allowed for her to hold that space for others. During her time helping to launch Coca-Cola’s innovation think tank, she first started working and training with recent graduates. “Towards the end of my career at Coca-Cola, I started teaching as an adjunct, and I liked it! You could change peoples’ lives.” Even as she ventured down the entrepreneurial path and other endeavors (including work in the nonprofit world), teaching called to her. This evolution led her to higher education and eventually to joining the College of Business. “[Teaching] is where I think I can make the biggest impact as a human being.”

Often the light impact emits in these student-spaces and what darkness it disperses is not for the mentor to know or even see. For Dr. Karimi, she has been able to see first-hand what that inspiration looks like to students. “I’ve had so many students come into [CIS 420] — especially young ladies — not feel confident about their capabilities.” As a result, Dr. Karimi leans on her past work to help students discover and reinforce their strengths to foster a belief in themselves. In that process of discovery, Dr. Karimi learns and tackles an ever-evolving world’s challenges to ensure her students are ready for tomorrow. That challenge was made all too real this year by teaching (and injecting humanity) in a pandemic.

“This Covid-thing, oh I’ve learned…to [continue] to be compassionate and be there for one another.” Last semester, one of her students contracted Covid before their final presentation. “Even though I told her that she didn’t have to present, she said, ‘No I can’t do that.’ She came for her team. I was in tears.”

This past December, Karimi invited CIS student Ruomei Wang to attend the 2020 Women In Tech Louisville Awards with her. The experience was an eye-opener to Ruomei, “I was so inspired by everyone there.” For her part, Dr. Karimi won the STEAM Leadership award. Seeing her professor recognized by a community beyond the University was inspirational and aspirational for Ruomei. There is not only a place for women (and women of color) in the IT world; there are also places in the community where these women are recognized and championed. Being able to see oneself in spaces that break with the status quo and translate those experiences for others is itself a teaching moment, and Dr. Karimi offers advice for women looking to enter STEM fields. “First and foremost, they have to believe in themselves. They will be surrounded by a lot of male colleagues, and as a result, may not feel like this is a profession for them. They need to remember that there is a reason they picked this path. There was something passionate that drew them into this arena of technology. If they believe in themselves, do the best they can, and focus on the passion, they will succeed.”

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