Class of Spring 2024: CECS graduate Issa Hachem

April 24, 2024

One of three siblings to graduate from UM-Dearborn, computer engineering graduate Issa Hachem says getting to the commencement stage has been a family affair.

A color graphic featuring a headshot of student Issa Hachem
Graphic by Violet Dashi

First-generation college students often speak of the burden of having to figure out financial aid, majors and minors, and all the other mechanics of a college experience without the help of a parent who’s done it before. But that learning curve can be seriously flattened if you have older siblings blazing the trail for you, says spring ’24 graduate Issa Hachem. The computer engineering senior had three older siblings who, as he did, attended Henry Ford College for two years, then finished a four-year degree. (His two older brothers are also UM-Dearborn graduates.) Issa’s older brother, Mohamad, even studied a similar discipline, which helped him avoid his brother’s mistake of taking a bunch of classes that didn’t transfer. “It’s like the family hand-me-downs, but with advice,” Issa says. “Each kid coming up has it a little bit easier than the last.”

Indeed, the Hachem family is building an impressive story of collective achievement — one in which the American Dream label, however overused, feels apropos. Issa’s mother, Eman, came to the United States from Lebanon when she was a teenager, and his father joined her a few years later. Neither of Issa’s parents had the opportunity to go to college, but he says it was always the goal that the kids would. After graduating from UM-Dearborn, Issa’s oldest brother went to medical school and is finishing his residency in June. His sister is a NICU nurse and is pursuing a master’s in nursing education. His other older brother works as an engineer at Bosch, where Issa is currently interning in the same department. Following the well-honed Hachem formula, the youngest is now finishing his second year at Henry Ford and will be starting his computer engineering program at UM-Dearborn this fall.

Issa’s own college journey has had its unique twists. He’s worked full time or part time at six different jobs while he’s been in school. He’s also part of the unique mini-generation that started college during the COVID pandemic. He didn’t even have an in-person class until he transferred to UM-Dearborn in 2022. Issa remembers it being a pretty big adjustment. His first semester, he did well in three of his four classes, but he struggled in his “Engineering Statistics and Probability” course — the most failed course in his program. “It was almost the end of the semester, and I had to make a decision: Do I quit my job? Do I work really hard and try to not fail this class and potentially sacrifice my As and Bs? Or do I maintain the As and Bs in the other classes and retake the other class later?” For a new student, it was a veteran way to assess the situation. He ultimately decided to abandon ship on the statistics course. When he retook it a few semesters later, he aced it — which wiped out the failing grade and gave a big boost to his GPA. 

After that rocky first semester, Issa found his stride in his computer engineering program. He says it’s hard to pick a favorite course or professor. Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Paul Watta’s habit of giving students a quiz every lecture stressed Issa out at first. But he grew to love Watta’s demanding style and the fact that his classes were packed with hands-on projects. Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Hafiz Malik also made an impression. “This dude — I remember he just rolled up the projector screen and went full chalkboard for two hours straight,” Issa says. “I had so many questions, and he answered every single one of them in a way that made perfect sense. The guy is a genius.” (Issa later completed a directed study in computer vision with Malik.) He and Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Samir Rawashdeh bonded over their shared interest in assistive technologies for people with disabilities. (He also loved that Rawashdeh’s passion for engineering bled over into cool side projects, like the Star Wars robots Rawashdeh builds for his kids.) Issa, himself, has been living with significant hearing loss since early childhood. For his senior design project, which Rawashdeh oversaw, Issa and his teammates built a device to assist hearing impaired people with their directional hearing — something that Issa’s top-of-the-line hearing aids can’t even do. “I got the idea when, one day, my friends and I were sitting around the garage and this cricket was chirping,” he explains. “And so we’re trying to find this cricket, and my friends all knew right where to look. And I was, like, ‘Guys, I have no idea where this cricket is!’ That’s when I realized just how bad my directional hearing was.” Their device is a 360-degree microphone array that can be worn tucked inside a ballcap. When it picks up sound, it buzzes on that side of the array, giving the user a discreet, easy-to-interpret tactile sensation of where the sound is coming from, enhancing spatial awareness for hearing impaired people. Issa and his teammates' project won the Best in Electrical and Computer Engineering Award and the Alumni Advisory Council Innovation Award at the 2024 Senior Design Competition. 

Issa says it’s a little surreal to be wrapping up a senior design project and to have graduation just a few days away. The approaching milestone has definitely given him a new perspective on things — particularly regarding the role his family has played in getting him to where he is. He laughs a little now at the teenage version of himself — the kid who thought he was “coming from the trenches” because he had a family that provided him everything he needed but not everything he wanted. Now he sees how having a dad who was an auto mechanic and DIY’d almost everything in their home nurtured his love of engineering. He appreciates the hours his mom, the self-taught family accountant, spent filling out his FAFSA forms. And he sees how his college experience likely wouldn’t have gone as smoothly as it did without his older siblings’ hand-me-down wisdom. 

“In high school, I think I was worried about all the wrong things. I was comparing myself to the kids whose dads owned businesses and could buy them expensive clothes and pay for college like it was nothing,” Issa says. “I thought I had nothing. I had this mentality that I had to grind. But now I see I really didn’t need to do that. When I was kind of overwhelmed working full time and trying to go to school, my family always had my back. They helped me realize that, no matter what, I was going to have a roof over my head and food to eat. Now, I see all that other material stuff didn’t matter. And I see some of the kids from high school who had it easy — they’ve switched majors three times and are still trying to figure things out. So I guess I’m just more grateful for my family and my friends. Any success I have — I wouldn't have it without them.”


Story by Lou Blouin