Engineering alum pays it forward with donations, urges others to do the same

Avi Shaked and Babs Waldman stand on either side of Jessica Hufford.

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee alumnus Avi Shaked is giving back to the university so other students can receive the types of financial support that benefitted him decades ago.

Shaked and his wife, Dr. Babs Waldman, are donating an additional $1 million to the Shaked-Waldman engineering scholarship that began with their first $1 million donation in 2005. In addition, they are donating $1 million to the Lubar Entrepreneurship Center, scheduled to break ground in 2018.

The CEAS Engineering Excellence Scholarship has already helped more than 550 engineering students complete their studies without having to rely on full-time jobs or extensive loans. In addition to their 2005 and 2017 donations, Shaked and Waldman donated another $1 million in 2011.

“I happen to believe that you need the time to study to do well,” said Shaked. “Working for a minimum wage, in the service industry, you probably don’t have enough time to study and you’re tired after working 12 hours. I was blessed that I got a full ride and didn’t have to work and worry.”

Shaked is familiar with working long hours for a low-wage job. An Israeli immigrant with a background in computers, he came to the United States in 1977 at age 25. He worked at a Milwaukee restaurant while establishing residency and awaiting approval from the Labor Department to work in the computer industry.

“I had to do what I had to do to survive,” he said. “I had to pay my rent and buy food.”

His goal was to become an engineer, and a friend who attended UWM suggested he enroll at the university. After he completed his first 21 credits with a 3.75 grade point average, he received the scholarship that allowed him to focus on his studies for the rest of his university career. He graduated with a B.S. in electrical engineering in 1980. (In 2008, he was honored as a distinguished alumnus in business and engineering.)

“I was always interested in electronics, and I had worked as a computer technician before I went to school,” Shaked said. “I decided to come to UWM because I wanted to be an engineer. I wanted an engineering degree.”

Nate Zelazo, founder of Astronautics Corporation in Milwaukee, gave Shaked his first job and became an early mentor.

Shaked started working for IBM as a design engineer, where the focus was on mainframes and “dumb” terminals, but he decided that was not the future of computers.

“I had the vision that there were going to be changes in the industry and that PCs would take over. It would change the way people do business,” he said. “I decided to go for the PC side while it was still in its infancy.”

With IBM, he had moved to Minnesota and then to Chicago, where he and Waldman met and married. After leaving IBM, he founded his own Chicago-based company to provide computer maintenance and support.

The firm eventually expanded into sales, software development and custom programming. In 1998, Shaked sold the company and retired for the first time. But when the company collapsed during the “tech bubble,” he bought it back and rebuilt it, naming it Onward Technologies. He retired from the company again in 2003, but he isn’t totally retired. “I still run two companies, but I have the time so I can get away when I want.”

Students call scholarships crucial

The scholarships have made it possible for current and past engineering students to focus on their futures rather than just surviving. Currently, 81 students in the engineering program are benefitting from Shaked-Waldman scholarships. Since the program started, the attrition rate in the engineering program has dropped significantly and grade point averages and other academic measures have increased, according to the College of Engineering and Applied Science.

“Since I was able to concentrate on school, I had a good enough GPA in the classes I was in that I was able to get an internship at Rockwell Automation,” said Matthew Brook, a junior in mechanical engineering.

For some, the scholarship made the difference in whether or not they could come to UWM or go to college at all.

“The scholarship really helped me be able to afford university, because it’s just less of a burden on our family,” said Jessica Hufford, a senior in mechanical engineering. Her father is a Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor who still has ongoing medical expenses.

The scholarship was a crucial factor for Nathan Olson, a junior studying mechanical engineering.

“When I got it (the scholarship) before my first year, it helped me make my decision to come to college here because otherwise it was going to very tough financially,” Olson said. “I would probably have ended up being an electrician or working HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) or something in the skilled trades. This helped me pay for school and get closer to some of my goals and dreams going forward.”

Avi Shaked stands in front of a room of students seated at tables.
Avi Shaked speaks at a reception for scholarship winners while his wife, Dr. Babs Waldman, and Chancellor Mark Mone look on. (UWM Photo/Troye Fox)

The scholarships have also lifted the fear of graduating with huge loan debts to repay. “Receiving the scholarship has helped me in paying for school,” said Kaley Camber, a sophomore in mechanical engineering who is paying her own way through school. “It’s helped to not take out any student loans until this point so I’m not accumulating debt.”

Said senior Caleb Abegglen: “This is a huge load off my mind because I won’t be in crushing debt for a four-year degree.”

The Shaked-Waldman scholarship has also made it possible for students to take advantage of other opportunities. Abegglen, for example, has been able to play rugby and also take part in undergraduate research for two years.

Other students, such as Megan Waterworth, have had the time to become involved in student organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers and Women in Computing.

Several students have used the opportunities that came with the scholarship to pay it forward to help others. Abegglen works with a volunteer organization called Young Life, which provides mentorship to high school students.

Jim Kennedy, a senior, is among the engineering students involved in Engineers Without Borders. Over the WinteriM term, he is traveling to Guatemala for the third time to help build a gravity-fed water system for a remote rural village.

“I would not have been able to work as hard in Engineers Without Borders without the scholarship,” he said. “We are getting experience in building water systems in a different country and impacting the lives of people in Guatemala.”

“It’s a resource that they’ve never had before,” added Hufford, who helped work on the design. “Instead of walking three miles a day, they now have a resource because of us.”

Happy to help

Shaked said he is happy to hear stories like these of how engineering students give back, helping others locally and in other countries.

“That’s great,” he said. “My wife has done medical work in the Dominican Republic and I’ve gone with her. So we’re all for that.”

Shaked and Waldman return often to UWM to meet with students who have benefited from their scholarships. Shaked still has fond memories of Milwaukee and the university.

“UWM was perfect for me’” he said. “It gave me the chance to do the best I can — which I did. Without my education at UWM, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

More than that, he wants to encourage others to follow their example.

“Someone who is considering giving money for scholarships is doing the best thing they can do,” Shaked said. “The main reason is they may hit on the future inventor that would discover the cure for cancer, for example, or would discover something that would benefit mankind in a big way.”

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