Three international students met on campus, embarked on successful careers and are now giving back to the university so others may follow their path.
They had not yet become great friends upon their respective arrivals at Texas Tech University. Those unbreakable bonds would form later. One came from Greece, one from Nigeria and one from Pakistan.
Almost 40 years ago, the long and winding road led each to the wide-open spaces of West Texas, where they would be well-equipped to make a difference in the world.
Meet Ravi Budruk, vice president of MindShare, a training company that provides Fortune 100 tech corporations with computer engineering education; George Vasmatzis, co-director of the Biomarker Discovery Program within the Center for Individualized Medicine at the Mayo Clinic; and Rashid Bashir, dean of the Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
That is who they are today, but when they began their studies at the Texas Tech Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in 1985, they were international students whose bags were packed with grit, determination and resiliency.
As well as generous portions of hope and expectation.
“We are fortunate to be successful today,” Vasmatzis says, “and Texas Tech was an important step for us. In fact, if it wasn't for Texas Tech, we wouldn't be where we are.”
Budruk was a 15-year-old halfway around the world in Nigeria when he first considered Texas Tech as an educational destination.
“It had the lowest tuition of the colleges I was considering,” he said. “And one of my dad's acquaintances had a son at Texas Tech. He figured for a young, naive boy to go to the United States at that time when there were no phone lines to Nigeria, the safest place to go would be where his friend's son was.”
Bashir, a native of Pakistan, was already in Lubbock, having arrived earlier to finish his secondary education at Lubbock Christian High School.
“Lubbock Christian High was a great experience where I was able to get accustomed to the U.S. and finished the 11th and 12th grades in one year,” he said, “and then went to Lubbock Christian University (Lubbock Christian College at the time).”
Texas Tech their shared destination
After one semester, Bashir transferred from Lubbock Christian to Texas Tech, where his brother was already a student in the computer science program. There also was another reason for Texas Tech's appeal.
“One of my dad's distant relatives was on faculty at Texas Tech,” he said. “Dr. (Arfin) Lodhi was in the physics department, so my dad said OK to Texas Tech and Lubbock because at least there would be someone in town we knew when we got there.”
Lodhi retired as a member of the teaching faculty in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in 2014 after 50 years of service. He remains a member of its research faculty.
For Vasmatzis, the why mattered probably even more than the where.
“Education is very different from country to country,” he said. “In Greece, we have good education at the high school level, but when you go to a university, it deteriorates because of lack of investments. Some countries don't have the resources needed to educate at the undergraduate level with high quality at scale.”
This made it imperative Vasmatzis find a place that would meet his expectations and provide him with a first-class college education.
“Because I got familiarized with the U.S. from my American-sponsored high school (Anatolia College), I decided to come here,” he said. “I wanted to find an optimal solution that would also be the most economical because all three of us were from moderate families economically. The thing I can tell you about Texas Tech is it was way better than I even hoped for; Texas Tech gave each of us the opportunity we needed to prove ourselves.”
All the young men wanted was a chance. They'd supply everything else, starting with a relentless work ethic.
As it turned out, it took a little while before the three connected with each other on campus. In addition to their shared experience as international students at Texas Tech, they also took some of the same classes.
Budruk was an electrical engineering major living in Wells Hall. He had left home as he turned 16, cutting birthday cake and then embarking on a trip to the U.S. on the same day and bringing $5,000 to cover living expenses for the first year.
“I made numerous friends from other countries,” he recalled. “I met students from Zambia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. We had a good group of friends, and I immediately immersed myself in my studies because I was nervous about wasting my dad's $5,000. I had to make straight A's.”
Vasmatzis also found a community of international students who helped smooth his transition.
Texas Tech captures their hearts
“There was something like 10 other Greek students who ended up at Texas Tech about the same time I did,” Vasmatzis said. “Texas Tech gave opportunities to international students to attend because it is important to the educational system to bring in people who work hard, learn and contribute to society. That's part of what makes a great university.
“The point is there is a lot of emphasis on ranking universities, but I don't think that matters as much. What matters is to have a good place that will give you a good education, where you can work hard, take your opportunity, and make the best out of it.”
For all three men, Texas Tech represented the place that captured their aspirations and came to embody the American dream.
“Lubbock and Texas Tech are certainly very special in my heart,” Bashir said. “There were many experiences along the way where people, faculty and staff really, really helped out and supported us. I was very young; it was my father who was the visionary because he came to the U.S. in the 1970s for U.S. Naval training.
“He was in the Navy, and that is where he fell in love with America and said that he would send his kids. I think America has always been and I hope always continues to be not about where you came from, but where you're going.”
Along the way, Budruk also had met an electrical engineering doctoral student who offered him a job in his electrical engineering department lab, which allowed him to cover living expenses.
“That helped me feel comfortable at Texas Tech without the worry of my father having to pay all of my expenses through those years,” he said. “Then, luckily, I found these two friends who tended to make 95% A's, and in the case of Rashid, 99%. It was just the inspiration I needed to keep my grades up. Texas Tech was the place that allowed me to develop professionally.”
Midway through Budruk's junior year, the three became best friends and remain so to this day.
“Texas Tech was also the place that showed me the importance of maintaining wonderful relationships in life, not just focusing on professional development,” Budruk said.
As they completed their undergraduate degrees, they knew they would benefit from additional graduate education.
“This was the time of (former Apple CEO) Steve Jobs,” Vasmatzis said. “He had created a revolution, and we all saw that happening with computers as far as Apple and the internet, and we wanted to be a part of that. So, the three of us, instead of going and finding job, decided to go to graduate school. It was an important decision that a lot of other students didn't make at that time.”
The grad school carpool
Each applied to various schools, and they also decided to take the unique step of pooling their resources.
“We bought a car together,” Budruk said. “We applied to different places, and we were all accepted to different universities, but it turned out the one common place we were all accepted was Purdue. We chose Purdue because we figured we should stick together. I mean, why mess up a good thing, right? We bought a car together. We had a common bank account and shared an apartment while we were all there.”
Although the decision to leave the comfort and familiarity of Texas was difficult, it was one made after a thoughtful process.
“We could have stayed in Texas, but in educational evolution, you need to do something different,” Vasmatzis said. “We talked to a lot of our professors, and one of our physics professors said we should go, not because they didn't want to keep us, but because they wanted us to try something different to expand.”
In addition to professors, they solicited input from friends and others in their lives at the time. Then they went to a nearby restaurant and in true scientific fashion listed the pros and cons of leaving, assigning a weighted value to each.
“We did the math,” Budruk said. “It turned out that based on this matrix and this algorithm that we should go because it was more important to grow, and growth happens when you leave your comfort zone.”
They each put about $600 toward a small red car that had been owned by one of Texas Tech's post-doctoral students, loaded their belongings into the vehicle nicknamed “Samantha” and began the 1,100-mile journey to the Purdue University campus in West Lafayette, Indiana.
“It was a Renault Encore,” Bashir remembered. “The kind of car you should never buy because it looked good but broke down a lot.”
But it was just big enough to hold not only their hopes and dreams for the future, but also the memories and recollections of these formative years on the South Plains. Lubbock might have been in the rear-view mirror for now, but there would come a time when it would once again, as a familiar song reminds, draw nearer and dearer.
What the three remember most about their time on the Texas Tech campus are the relationships they had with professors. Class size was relatively small, giving them ample chance to connect with faculty members and classmates. Also important, all received scholarship support that reduced their out-of-pocket expenses and made a college degree more accessible.
“Many international students who come to the United States to study for undergraduate education are from lower- and middle-class backgrounds and find affording tuition a big challenge,” Budruk said. “Scholarships and jobs are ways students can afford paying for college expenses. I know if it hadn't been for the jobs I had in the department, my father ultimately would have run out of money and wouldn't have been able to afford Texas Tech. I would have had to drop out.
“I cannot think of ever feeling like I didn't belong. No one made me feel like I didn't belong because of my skin color, my ethnic background or the fact that I was an immigrant. Texas was very welcoming.”
Forever changed by Texas Tech
There were other tangible rewards as well from their undergraduate experience.
“I have too many stories to share from Texas Tech and so many fond memories,” Bashir said. “In addition to the best gift of meeting my lifelong friends and brothers, George and Ravi, Texas Tech provided many opportunities to help shape who I am today. Also important was the generosity of the people at Texas Tech in time and treasures. The senior project opportunity on high-temperature superconductivity afforded to George and I was transformational.”
The imprint of Texas Tech lingers with each and continues to influence them in their respective disciplines.
“Here at the Mayo Clinic, my career path has led me to a completely different field from where I started,” Vasmatzis said. “I evolved from an electrical engineer to a computational biologist to a genomicist and then getting to a point where I facilitate bringing a community of people together with different expertise to tackle a problem like cancer. That's very difficult, but Texas Tech was very much a part of this evolutionary path of my life, showing me the importance of collaboration and cooperation with other individuals of varied expertise.”
In some ways, the journey has come full circle. For the first time since loading up that Renault, the three returned to campus in 2021, enjoying another heaping helping of Texas Tech hospitality.
“They gave us personal attention,” Budruk recalled. “We had great meetings with the university president and the dean of engineering. We were given a tour of campus, saw the football stadium. We were treated like royalty. It was one of the best four days we ever spent at Texas Tech.”
Probably because they reconnected with the great memories that accrued during their undergraduate days.
“You want to come to America, work hard and make something happen for yourself,” Vasmatzis said. “The American goal is to create a better life for everybody here and beyond. Now, I am an American, and I am proud to be in this country, and the educational system is extremely important to showing that principle of the American dream to the world.”
It's with that in mind that the three have once again pooled their resources, this time to create a scholarship for international students at Texas Tech and to maybe smooth the educational paths they are blazing.
Their scholarship will ultimately benefit engineering students who have completed their first year of studies with a GPA of at least 3.5. An additional benefit to receiving the funds is they reduce tuition rates from international to in-state, providing significant savings.
Paying the kindness forward
“It is my belief that a fresh influx of international students will keep educational standards high because those are the students who work hard,” Budruk said. “To get those students, affordability is the key for many. That was our thinking in deciding to provide this scholarship. If you don't have scholarships, the philanthropy from folks who can fill that bucket for them to tap into, they aren't going to come.”
For these three longtime friends, the scholarship is a way to pay forward the kindness they experienced at Texas Tech and open doors of opportunity that will lead … who knows where.
“I believe philanthropy is so important to our collective aspirations of moving our society forward on all fronts,” Bashir said. “Those who have can give back, not only to pay backwards to thank all those who helped us get where we are, but also pay forward for those that would benefit from it in the future and could change the world for the better, in small and large ways.”
Their stop at Texas Tech changed their lives – even if they might not have known it at the time.
“The word appreciation is the one that comes to mind,” Vasmatzis said. “Not just professors, students, colleagues, but the whole entity, the whole Texas Tech community that invited me and supported me and helped me in what may have been the most important part of my career – the beginning.”