Stroll through California State University, Chico's verdant 119-acre campus any morning or afternoon and you'll see students chatting and studying as they juice up their phones and laptops at a seated solar charging station.

Several things make this charging station, which is on a Bell Memorial Union terrace next to the Student Services Center, remarkable.

It's the first off-grid solar system in the U.S. to use thin-film photovoltaic panels, which are far more efficient than traditional solar electric panels. The benches and tabletop are made from wood salvaged from a 300-year-old blue pine tree that fell in Red Bluff. Power generation and consumption can be monitored from anywhere in the world. 

And the entire facility was planned, designed, built—right down to sanding and polishing the wood—and implemented by five Chico State engineering students as their year-long senior Capstone Design Program in 2016.

Leading the project was Salam Ali.

Now a civilian flight-test engineer for the Navy, she graduated Chico State with a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering in 2016.

When Ali visited the campus a couple of months after graduation, she found the eight charging receptacles in full use, with some students enjoying lunch as they powered their devices.

"I got teary-eyed," Ali remembers. "Chico has really beautiful weather, but there had never been a place to plug in and enjoy the sun. Now, seeing people using the charging station on a gorgeous summer day was one of the most satisfying moments of my life. All our hard work had paid off."

 

The Engineering of a Transformation

This access to solving real-world problems is one reason Ali knows she made the right decision when she chose to attend Chico State. (She'd also been accepted at UC Berkeley and UC Davis, among other schools.)

"At most universities, the projects students are given are theoretical," she says. "But here we had a real customer—the college—and a real budget—nearly $16,000. We also had professors who gave us the tools to solve whatever problems we encountered. Because of them and their instruction, I felt extremely prepared to go out into industry and handle whatever job I got."

Ali pauses for a moment. "I'm getting a little choked up," she says, and then continues. "Chico State transformed me. I evolved and became a lot more confident, someone who knows what she wants and how to achieve it. I'm really happy with who I am."

Not only has Ali become a promising young engineer, she's also having an impact on a younger generation of girls through mentoring programs she introduced to her alma mater. Her motto, she laughs, is "get them while they're young."

As Ali explains, "If we introduce girls to engineering and science at an early age, they'll be open to pursuing it as a career when they're older. The goal is empowerment—to show girls that they're capable of anything." 

 

A Passion Discovered

Ali had grown up in Willows, a farming town some 30 miles southeast of Chico, where hers was the only Muslim-American family.

Her mother, who'd emigrated from Palestine when she was 20, raised six children as a single mom. Ali has older twin sisters and she's one of quadruplets (two girls and two boys). 

"My mom worked three jobs," she says, "but she was heavily involved in our education. She always told us, 'knowledge is power.'"

Every Sunday, the family would drive two hours to Sacramento for a full day of instruction at an Islamic school where Ali's mother was one of the teachers. 

Between her junior and senior years of high school, Ali took part in Upward Bound, a federally funded national program that preps students from low-income families and those where neither parent holds a bachelor's degree to succeed in college.

 "We stayed at the dorms at Chico State and took college-level classes," she recalls. "The program set you up to excel at any four-year-college."

After high school, Ali enrolled at Chico State as a math major. But two years in, she realized she was on the wrong path.

"I'd always loved taking things apart to see how they worked," she says, "whether it was clocks or my brothers' remote control cars." In her teens she'd moved on to real vehicles, working alongside a family friend who rehabbed cars as a hobby.

Then, during a family visit to Palestine during the summer after her sophomore year of college, Ali spent several happy weeks learning more about mechanics at an uncle's auto body shop.

 

The Difference a Mentor Makes

When Ali returned to Chico State she met with Gregory Kallio, Ph.D., a professor of mechanical and mechatronic engineering, to talk about switching her major to engineering, even though that would mean an additional two years of study before she could complete her degree.

"The only thing he asked me was 'why?'" Ali says. "And when I told him I didn't have a passion for math, he said, 'fine, I'll be your counselor.'"

Dr. Kallio mentored Ali throughout the next four years, coaching her to move beyond what she learned from books and guiding her in becoming a team leader. "He'd say, 'if you put your calculations into practice and they haven't worked out the way you thought they would, that's not a black hole of despair,'" Ali recalls. "'Now, [he'd say,] 'you have a new problem to solve,' or 'let's find another way.'"

Ali was also sharpening her problem-solving skills in an unexpected place: on a rock-climbing wall. Though she had never considered herself athletic, she'd taken a climbing class her first semester at Chico State and discovered she loved it.

"It's not only a physical workout, it's a mental workout," she says. "Climbing is like solving a puzzle. Being on the wall or outdoors on a climbing trip helped me move past frustration in all parts of my life by showing me there's always another route to where you want to go."

Ali would go on to work at the Wildcat Recreation Center, making sure students were following safety procedures in their climbs and, in 2016, she was named the center's Employee of the Year.  

 

Imparting Wisdom, Having an Impact

While Ali was being mentored by Dr. Kallio, she was acting as a mentor herself.

She spent three summers as a robotics instructor for the Upward Bound program where she'd been a student just a few years earlier.

Together with fellow Chico State engineering student Michelle Rodriguez, she piloted a NASA-funded outreach program called Small Satellites for Secondary Students; they led middle school and high-school students through the steps of soldering, programming, building and, finally, launching payloads on high-powered rockets.

In 2013, Ali helped in creating the Disney-inspired Imagineer Day, an annual event where kids, mostly girls, from kindergarten to sixth grade, take part in hands-on activities like building rockets and volcanoes. To Ali's great satisfaction, Chico State is continuing the program for 2017.

These activities helped earn Chico State a gold "outreach" award from the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), while Ali herself was presented with the campus's Mechanical Engineering Alumni Award for her promotion of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) throughout the community.

Even better than these accolades, Ali says, is the news she heard from two students who'd taken her Small Satellites workshop. After being expelled from their local high school the girls had been sent to a school for juvenile offenders; now, both were enrolling in community college. Their intended major: engineering.

"To be able to impart the wisdom and knowledge we'd gotten from Chico State and see it's had an impact on the lives of other young women," Ali says, "that's just unbelievably heartwarming and thrilling."