July 2022 Centennial Engineer of the Month – Gul A Saleh, PhD, PMP, M. ASCE
Mr. Gul Afghan Saleh has been a key member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) for over eight years. He is a civil engineer with a Ph.D. in Urban Planning and Design, a certified Project Management Professional (PMP), and has over 35 years of professional experience. Dr. Saleh has worked and/or studied in many countries, including Japan, Egypt, Thailand, India, Germany, Pakistan, and many more.
Much of Dr. Saleh’s work has been in Afghanistan, however, where he was born and raised, and the United States, where he currently resides. Prior to moving to the States with his family in 2014, Dr. Saleh worked directly with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for eleven years, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) for five years, the Afghan NGO Pamir Reconstruction Bureau for another five years, and the Afghan government for ten years. He joined the UNITAR’s Hiroshima Fellowship for Afghanistan Program (UNITAR AF) as a Fellow in 2007 and climbed his way up to becoming a Mentor in 2013, helping his fellow Fellows from Iraq and Afghanistan. During these decades, he worked under many titles and with many organizations as he designed, developed, managed, and was consulted on countless engineering and environmental projects, with fundings up to $300M, including much philanthropic work and providing humanitarian aid.
In the States, he has kept himself busy with a Business Development Advisor role for Sheladia Associates, Inc. and as a Special Inspector of Intertek-PSI covering the DMV area. Dr. Saleh hasn’t forgotten his motherland, however, and recently worked with the Spanish company ACCIONA Engineering as a PMP in developing a Country Environment Profile for Afghanistan.
He also continues his philanthropic and volunteer work and is currently not only a member of the ASCE, but also a Founding and Board Member of the Afghanistan Engineers’ Association (AEA). He is also an Executive Director for the Society of Afghan Engineers (SAE), a US based organization, and continues to serve as a volunteer UN-certified Trainer and Mentor for UNITAR AF to this day.
Dr. Saleh continues his professional and personal endeavors as a Civil Engineer and as an Afghan tirelessly. He currently works as an Inspector for Gannett Fleming, Inc., but is always down for a chat with young civil engineers in his free time, as he loves nothing more than giving back to this community. He resides in Virginia with his wife and seven children, many of whom complain he loves giving back a little too much.
Centennial EOM Questionnaire
Question 1. What do you consider your major achievements in civil engineering in our Section area?
In our section area as well as the rest of the DMV (Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia), I’ve worked on countless projects, ranging from health to educational buildings, with private to government fundings, covering areas from Baltimore to Richmond, from small buildings to ones over twenty stories tall. In these projects, I’ve mostly performed construction quality control (QC), ensuring work is properly performed and up to date with company plans and industry standards, the latter of which is constantly changing in ways not everyone keeps up with, nor do they need to. That’s why I’m there. Because of the team nature of my work, though, it’s hard to measure personal contribution to any single project or claim one as an “achievement” over another. Personally, I would say I’m most proud of my work in the Transform I-66 Out of the Beltway Project, where I provided quality oversight and technical advisory to the I-66 Express Way Partners for Segment 3 of the project. The massive size and allocative efficiency of the project made it particularly important for me, because this would be a project that benefits the public, hundreds and thousands of people who use this road, for many years to come. I personally love contributing to public service projects more so than building another private jet runway for a celebrity, and though both are equally part of my job in terms of civil engineering projects, I am prouder of my works that benefit the public.
Question 2. Why did you decide on a career in civil engineering?
Well, there’s three main reasons. The first one, probably being a very common ambition, was my wish and drive to make a difference in other people’s lives, a change for the better. This meant I undoubtedly wanted to go into the public service sector. The second reason was my love for and interest in science and technology from a very young age, so I was driven towards STEM more so than humanities. While there are many public service STEM jobs, the decision to pursue civil engineering, and the third and final reason, was simply that at the time and place I chose my major, there was simply a great need for civil engineers. Afghanistan was a developing country, with a need for development and protection of its land and environment, so it just made sense. I chose to study in a vocational technical high school as soon as I graduated middle school, so my path in college was very clear, since civil engineering not only fit all my personal interests, but also my educational history. Once I entered the field, I never once looked back. Civil engineering is a field where success and progress can be observed on an almost hourly basis, giving you that sort of instant gratification humans long so badly for. It also allows you to be part of something bigger, have a sense of purpose, literally see the difference you’re making, all while doing what you love, and without the stress of high stakes of instant failure, where a similarly fulfilling job in, say, the medical field might have. You can restart a brick layout but you can’t restart a heart surgery. I’m lucky and grateful to say I am as passionate about my career today as I was 30 years ago, and that I have no regrets. Maybe that’s my biggest achievement in Civil Engineering.
Question 3. Provide some career guidance for young civil engineers.
I cannot stress this enough: broaden your skill set as much as possible, as frequently as you get the chance, and try to choose a specialty and gain expertise in it as early as you can. While many people try to focus on organization, coordination, management, and other such skills, they forget to realize that a technical field demands technical skills first. Don’t get me wrong, communication and organization and other such foundational work skills are important, but those are basic life skills that we never really begin or stop developing and improving. They’re foundations you’ll build along without even knowing it, and almost always something that you can’t gain in a book or a week no matter how hard you try. Those skills can only be significantly improved with time, for they require consistency and change of habits rather than practical knowledge. What you can and should gain immediately is that practical knowledge, those technical skills. You can be a great communicator, but if you have nothing to communicate, you’re not going to be a very good doctor or engineer. In a technical field like civil engineering, always put technical skills and knowledge first, and keep that skillset and knowledge updated as the field changes rapidly. Lastly, always seek balance, whether it’s between your life and work, your work in the field and in the office, or your work on a computer and on hand.
Question 4. What do you consider the major challenge to a career in civil engineering?
The devotion and commitment required, especially despite the risks in the more physical aspects of the job, are definitely a major deal breaker for most people. Civil engineering is a profession that requires a relatively high degree of both physical and professional risk-taking, as well as the willingness to give up many personal amenities. If you mess up teaching kids math and you notice after the test, you can apologize and correct them for next time. If you miscalculate the amount of force a pillar can hold and notice after people walk on it, there’s a good chance those people will never walk again, and that’s on you. In addition to this, dealing with the earth, nature, dangerous construction equipment, and other environmental hazards, otherwise known as “getting your hands dirty”, is just not fun for most people. Most work sites are also inconvenient in terms of access to basic amenities, since unfinished buildings don’t tend to have finished, functional bathrooms, or nearby parking spots. Put that next to the need for personal protective clothing, following strict safety, health, and hygiene related rules and regulations and so forth, and you’ve got yourself not one, but plenty of major challenges to a career in civil engineering. Personally speaking, the sense of service is worth every inconvenience of the job, but I cannot speak for everyone.
Question 5. Tell us about your volunteer activities. What is the motivating factor for volunteering? How has being a volunteer enriched your professional career?
Though currently I am the President, I have been a member of the Bull Run Branch of the Virginia Section, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), under one title or another since 2014. This is of course completely a voluntary activity. I am also Co-Founder and currently serve as a Board Member of the Afghanistan Engineers Association (AEA), another volunteer commitment of mine. Yet another Afghan engineering society, the Society of Afghan Engineers (SAE), this one based in the United States, is where I serve as Executive Director of the Board of Directors. I also actively serve as a volunteer with the United Nations as a Mentor, a title that took six years to earn, for their United Nations Institute for Training and Research Hiroshima Fellowship for Afghanistan Program (UNITAR AF). I am currently active in all the volunteer work I’ve mentioned, since volunteering for me is as much about consistency and commitment as the actual service. I want to make a positive difference in as many people’s lives as possible, as I’m sure so do many others, and this is why I volunteer. But it is the decision to commit time and time again to making that difference, no matter how great or small, that I feel is the true value volunteering offers, the consistency and commitment it demands. This consistency enriches not only my professional career, in the obvious sense of displaying commitment, drive, leadership, and communication skills, but also my personal life, because helping others truly is helping one’s own self. The great networking opportunities, meeting lifelong friends with similar goals and interests, the chance to change lives and learn and teach all at once are just side benefits that certainly don’t hurt either.