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Students owe thanks to professors

Did my "Elementary Algebra" professor just threaten to slap one of the only two black students in the class? The student asked a question about factoring polynomials and suggested an impossible answer, to which Professor Robert Urbanski replied, "Stick out your hand, please." When the student asked why, Urbanski said, "Because I want to slap you" — assumingly for stating such an asinine remark. I found this to be a hysterical chain of events, but none of my 15 or so classmates laughed or said a word. This is because Urbanski didn't care about the color of a person's skin, but the quality and depth of the student's intellect. This was one of my first experiences the fall semester of my first year.

Professors have the ability to inspire creativity or diminish optimism, the insightfulness to guide a student toward a rewarding career path or let him run askew. They retain the talent to allow a semester to be a blissful learning experience or make 12 weeks seem like a torturous detainment. Urbanski was the quintessential example of what a professor should be and possessed a seemingly sixth sense of when to teach, when to lighten the class's mood and when to call on a student to answer a question. He would talk about his wacky experiences trying mushrooms or how he turned on his charm when a cop pulled him over for going 60 miles over the speed limit. When he did not like an answer, he would say, "That answer was dirty like mud on a duck" and persisted until the concept was drilled into a fragile mind. I formed a special bond with Urbanski — so much so that he would call me his shadow. I would sit at his office hours while he ate a roast beef sandwich and munched on red peppers. I took him for three consecutive math courses, which was odd to me since math was my archenemy, but somehow Urbanski made math enjoyable for me to do in my spare time.

Robert Urbanski — a fisherman, Korean-war veteran, mathematics professor and my friend — passed away on Jan. 11, 2010. Although he is gone, his legacy lives on — he gave me the confidence to reach for the highest opportunities, to not give up and believe in myself. Most importantly, he taught me to enjoy life to its fullest. Professors often seem to overlook the tremendous influence they have on their students, especially in the larger introductory courses. On the same hand, students should realize the heavy workload professors are subjected to — teaching, grading, conducting research and mentoring organizations. Professors must find the right balance with students. Like baseball manager Tommy Lasorda once said, "Managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly, you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it." This applies to teaching as well. Although bad professors can be given low ratings on ratemyprofessor.com and won't be taken again, inspirational ones can influence students for a lifetime.

Consider Warren Buffett, the world's third richest man whose fortune is listed close to $47 billion — yes, nine zeros. Buffet described his professor at Columbia Business School, Benjamin Graham, as being the second most influential person in his life after his father. He credits Graham with instilling in him a sound intellectual investment framework and had such a significant impact on his life that he named his son after him — Howard Graham Buffett. Students may have much trouble finding inspirational professors such as these, and some might think of it as a rarity, but most professors seem to try to be exceptional mentors. However, not all have the talent or knack to accomplish this distinction. So where are all the Grahams of the University hiding and how can we find you?

I discovered my Graham in my "Computer Applications for Business" class. A computer sciences professor, he sported a vintage gray-colored suit, had a balding head and hearty beard that competed well with that of Moses's — his name was Kristian Stout. Upon the urging of my First-year Interest Group instructor, I decided to visit his office hours to discuss my frustration with a computer programming language. Since then, I attended most of his office hours and he gradually became my mentor and coach. We spoke about federalism, philosophical theories and religion; he taught me how to pick up girls and how to succeed in life. From time to time I enjoyed dinner with him, not just because he pays each time but also because I receive infinite wisdom from him that I'd never be able to repay. I cannot put into words how much I admire Stout, but I do wish that each and every one of you could experience a relationship with one of your professors like the one I have with him. Go to professors' office hours, ask questions and you never know — you might just make a new friend that changes your life.

The author of "The Last Lecture," Randy Pausch, had an undergraduate advisor — Andy Van Dam, who helped him lead such a happy life that Pausch constantly mentioned him in a speech shortly before Pausch died from pancreatic cancer. Our minds are very malleable due to our young age. Sometimes we need professors like Van Dam to tell us that we're being arrogant and a jerk, like he told Pausch in college. When Pausch told his professor that he was getting a job after graduation, Van Dam knew better and told him no and got him into Carnegie Mellon's graduate program. Professors like this are the true leaders of our nation, not presidents or CEOs. Please, professors, we students need you more than ever to be our guiding light, our mentors, friends and Grahams. We need more professors like Neil Sheflin in the economics department, who not only brings cookies to class, but works hard to teach us how to go further in life, gives career advising sessions, inspiring us to ask questions and going the extra mile, because he knows students today are going to shape the world tomorrow. We students owe a big thank you to the professors that made a difference in our lives, and for those of you who have not found your Urbanskis or Stouts yet, they're out there waiting for you!

Amit Jani is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in journalism and media studies. His column, "The Fourth Estate," runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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