Catching Up: ECE Alumnus Mohamed F. Ali

Posted: March 10, 2021

At its core, the purpose of engineering essentially helps people avoid making the same mistake twice.

Mohamed Farah Ali is an unassuming example of that effort. As an alumnus of The Ohio State University’s Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) program, he uses the same goal to help lift up his community of fellow Somali immigrants in Columbus.

“I always remind them about the American dream and the opportunities they have that their parents wish they had,” he said. “Education is the key to success and it’s one way to cross the poverty line.”

He knows refugees must work much harder toward their path to success, and still, the playing field is never even. He wants to make it easier for them.

Born a Somali war refugee and immigrant, Ali is now a lead electrical engineer at a New Albany tech company. He is also officially running to become the next Columbus City Schools Board member to help further represent his community.

The resettlement of Somalian refugees into the United States first began in 1990 as wars escalated in Northern Africa. Today, some 60,000 Somali people now call Columbus home, creating the second-largest concentration of such refugees in the United States.

Ali once spoke about his past before graduating from Ohio State ECE. In the refugee camps, there was no electricity. When the sun went down, the books went down. He taught himself how to make a solar-powered light, just to keep reading into the evening. He never had access to a computer before college and had to first learn English as well.

International and refugee students must know, he said, language alone does not define a person’s intelligence.

somali students

“A lot of immigrant students are first-generation high school graduates, or they end up becoming first-generation college graduates in their families,” Ali said. “But now the demographic is changing. We have good numbers of young Somali-American college graduates. It didn’t make any sense for me not to give back to the community that gave me all.”

After graduation, Ali created the Somali Engineers Society to help offer extra guidance to refugees. He started within the Ohio State alumni database and teamed up with ECE Professor Betty Lise Anderson, who directs the Ohio State K-12 Engineering Outreach Program, to run classes for children at the Islamic Sunday school. Projects involve learning how to generate electricity from the sun and wind, or to build paper speakers from wire and magnets.

“Our goal was to mentor and become role models to the young immigrant students in both middle and high schools and expose them to engineering,” Ali said.

Even before the pandemic hit, Anderson said, Ali was coming to the Ohio State campus every two weeks to learn a new K12 Engineering Outreach project, and translate them into Somali to teach the children.

"This guy is amazing," Anderson said. "He takes the materials, teaches it to some of the other members of the mosque, and then they do it with the kids, like 90 of them! and that's just his mosque. His goal is to do this in every mosque in Columbus."

She said the ECE Engineering Outreach program provides all the materials.

"If any other alumni want to do these projects in their communities, we can totally help with that," Anderson said.

Ali said teaching the children helps to open their minds about their future.

“The best of all was to show the immigrant students that they can become engineers, and whatever they had in their mind, as long as they put effort and work hard toward their careers,” Ali said.

His advice for current refugees and immigrants at Ohio State is to always consult with their academic advisors about which classes to take; work smarter, not harder.

“See what classes are required in the major,” he said. “I remember taking unnecessary classes for my major during my freshman year.”

Ali said Ohio State also offers numerous student opportunities to take advantage of.

“The most important advice I give to them is to start going to career fairs or to the career service center to land summer internships,” he said. “An internship goes a long way. It helps your resume and makes your job search easy by the time you graduate compared to someone who didn’t have an internship.”

After beginning his career as an engineer, Ali vowed to travel back to Africa in 2020 to install solar panels at orphanages and schools in rural Somalia.

“COVID-19 halted the plan,” he said. “It’s still my number one goal once everything gets back to normal. My career helped me have a good depth of understanding of power systems. I used my knowledge and experience to create a solar design. It helped me do loads of calculations, and battery and cable sizing for solar panels.”

He said being an engineer can feel like having a superpower.

“Sometimes I call it detective work. It helps me to constantly use my thinking ability. I enjoy finding solutions to the root cause of a problem and coming up with the proper way to solve it,” he said.

Story by: Ryan Horns, ECE Communications Specialist | | @OhioStateECE