Journey of 7,000 miles starts with a single click

The lessons graduate student Tim French learned from UAB have improved safety for 10,000-plus soldiers.

This week, 52-year-old Tim French will take a more than 7,000-mile journey from around the world to the University of Alabama at Birmingham to walk across the stage at Saturday’s graduation and receive his master’s degree. It will be his first time on campus.

Tim FrenchFrench is the safety director for the U.S. Army’s Second Infantry Division, a 10,000-person unit stationed in South Korea. For the past 18 months, he spent early mornings and late nights pursuing his degree in UAB’s totally online Advanced Safety and Engineering master’s program in the School of Engineering. U.S. News & World Report, in its first survey of Best Online Programs for Veterans, ranks UAB’s engineering master’s programs fifth in the nation.

“In the field that I am in, it is very competitive,” French said. “I wanted to look deeper in the causation of accidents.”

French’s journey began a couple of years ago while attending a safety symposium during a weeklong stint stateside. He came across a brochure for the program, and after chatting with Martha Bidez, Ph.D., executive director of eLearning and Professional Studies, he was convinced it was a good thing to do.

The program includes live forums, coursework and online chats. Since South Korea is 15 hours ahead of Central time, French had to get up for the Sunday afternoon live chats at 3:30 Monday mornings.

“Thank God for coffee,” he said.

Joking aside, the lessons he learned transformed his thinking and working.

“In this program, Dr. Bidez and the others taught us prevention through design,” French said. “That was really important to me. It has made me go back and totally rework the safety program in the Second Infantry Division. This system has already focused on operational readiness across the division by decreasing accidents by 27 percent the first quarter, and we have had no fatalities or catastrophic equipment loss in over one year. This is exceptionally good for a 10,000-plus infantry division, the only one in Korea.”

French also praises the peer-to-peer element of the program, which includes sharing ideas with colleagues who span the globe from India to Kenya.

“This graduate program was specifically designed for a very ‘high-touch’ experience,” Bidez said. “Our faculty members are world-class, practicing safety professionals, just like the students, or recently retired. That’s why we emphasize peer-to-peer learning. The discussion boards provide a safe place for each of the students where they can share failures and successes.”

French says getting the chance to meet his classmates and professors is why he is gladly taking the long flight to UAB.

“Dr. Bidez stands out,” he said. “She isn’t satisfied with a simple answer. She makes you think through a process. She is not shy about saying, ‘Nope, that’s not it.’”

Charles Herbert Shivers, Ph.D., a professor in the program, stood out too.

“He will hold you to a standard and not give up any ground,” French said. “If he says, ‘I want a red widget,’ that’s what he wants. He holds your feet to the fire. Those two really pushed me. That’s why I wanted to walk at graduation.”

French paid for school using the GI Bill and VA benefits, and says UAB’s process in helping him was seamless. The university was recently named No. 33 on the U.S. News & World Report’s inaugural list of Best Colleges for Veterans.

“They have an excellent program, and the comptroller department at UAB is on it,” he said. “They were phenomenal in assisting me with all the necessary paperwork.”

Inspired by Bidez, French now has his eyes on pursuing a Ph.D. in safety. Though honored, Bidez says she is not surprised he wants to be one of the best in his industry.

“This program creates change agents who are inspired to change their world to be a safer place,” she said. “They call each other Safety Blazers.”

French is looking forward to seeing his fellow Safety Blazers this Saturday as they take the stage.

“I’ll be easy to spot in the crowd,” French said. “I’ll be the one grinning from ear to ear.”