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Pioneering Ph.D.

UCF’S first doctoral graduate from 1980 reflects on his time at the university and growth of his area of study: computer science.

Ali Hurson ’80PhD is quite familiar with what it feels like to be a pioneer.

A computer science student in the 1970s, when computers had a fraction of the popularity they do today, he was accustomed to having just a small cohort of colleagues and friends who understood the kind of work he was doing.

Fast forward to 1980 and he truly would be a pioneer — the first Ph.D. graduate of UCF.

While he was pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, where he was a research assistant, his advisor — the late Professor Amar Mukherjee — was offered a faculty position at UCF.

“I was tired of the cold weather, so I followed him,” says Hurson, adding that although warmer weather was appealing, it did take a little bit of convincing for him to make such a big move.

“One of the challenges of being a Ph.D. student at the time was word processors, computers, workstations — these were not popular [or widely accessible] at the time,” Hurson says. “UCF supplied all that for me and hired staff to type and proofread my dissertation.”

In 1980, UCF had just been approved by the State University System of Florida to offer a doctoral degree in computer science — the first doctoral program at the university and the first computer science doctoral program in the state.

Hurson, who now is a professor of computer engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology, was an early adopter of computers thanks to his home country, Iran.

“Computing, or the notion of computer science, was restricted to an elite group of people in society [in its early days]. I was among the small group of people who were exposed to computing. I saw the future in it and knew this was an area I had to invest in,” says Hurson, who previously worked at a government information center.

He also aspired to teach because of his upbringing in Iran, where teaching was considered a privileged position.

“My family motivated me. They sensed I liked studying and kept encouraging me to pursue my education as far as I could go,” he says.

That privilege is something Hurson does not take for granted, even today.
“To have a Ph.D. is to be privileged,” he says. “Not everyone is lucky enough to reach that point. I hope those who get it remember that. If you have the opportunity in the future to help others, please do so.”

As Hurson thinks back on his days at UCF, he says he’s amazed by all the change and growth of opportunity that’s happened since the ’80s.

“When I came to UCF, there were about 8,000 students. It was very small. There was no Student Union like what the students know today,” he says. “When I came back for a visit in the early 2000s, I couldn’t believe how much a university could grow in a short period of time. Now I hear about national rankings, centers around the campus — it’s extraordinary.”

To students today, especially graduate students, Hurson suggests this: Be consistent. Keep going. Doing research is a lot like growing up.

“There is a lot of frustration because you are trying to solve an unknown,” he says. “You often make a mistake. I let students know this is part of the deal. That’s a part of growing up. Learn from your failures. Look at them as part of the learning process.”