Embodying the Spirit of Innovation and Determination: The Story of Charles Smith ’25 and Fayol Ateufack Zeudom ’26

Embodying the spirit of innovation and determination, Charles Smith ’25 and Fayol Ateufack Zeudom ’26 are prime examples of what makes Valpo’s College of Engineering stand out. Through participation in this year’s Symposium on Undergraduate Research and Creative Expression (SOURCE), their paths converged in a remarkable way, leading to significant achievements in their fields of study and setting them on a trajectory of continued personal and professional discovery.

Charles Smith ’25 smiling for a selfie-style photo next to his parents in front of the Chapel of the Resurrection at sunset.

Growing up, Charles was always curious. Captivated by how things worked, he loved to dismantle gadgets and learn their inner mechanisms. Naturally, his passion for science and math evolved into a fascination with electronics and programming during high school. Although his father was a mechanical engineer, Charles decided to forge his own path and explore how the field of engineering intersects with computers and technology. “I just loved the idea of using my problem-solving skills to create solutions,” Charles explains with enthusiasm, the same enthusiasm that would later lay a solid foundation for his choice to major in computer engineering.

Originally from Yaoundé, Cameroon, Fayol’s 7,000-mile journey to Valpo is a testament to his relentless pursuit of knowledge. Unlike Charles, Fayol did not have a family background in engineering; his parents were both police officers. Similar to Charles, however, Fayol’s desire to see immediate results from his ideas drove him towards a double major in engineering and physics. “In engineering, I can write a program and test it right away. I can see the results instantly, unlike fields like medicine where it takes years to see an impact,” Fayol shares.

Charles and Fayol’s paths intersected through SOURCE, an initiative that encourages and equips students to perform undergraduate research. For Charles, it was his first year participating, while Fayol had previously been involved. Their project, overseen by Professor Sami Khorbotly, Ph.D., focused on developing an automated parking solution using computer vision and artificial intelligence. This project was initially proposed by the civil engineering department, which needed a more efficient way to monitor campus parking.

Charles Smith ’25 smiling and standing by his poster presentation at SOURCE 2024.

Fayol vividly explains the technical challenge: “Computers don’t think like us. They see images as ones and zeros. We used a pre-trained AI model to identify cars in images and then aligned these images to specific parking spots. It’s easy for humans, but a long process for computers.” The project involved sophisticated algorithms to ensure accurate occupancy data for different types of parking spots, crucial for the University’s infrastructure planning.

Their research, which began in August 2023, and continued until Spring Break, led to impressive results. It not only allowed them to present at SOURCE and win first place in the undergraduate poster presentation category, but also garnered them recognition from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), where their work was published. “Being published as an undergraduate [student] is such an amazing experience. At a larger school, I would not have had this opportunity,” Charles reflects.

Although Charles and Fayol have both achieved so much during their time at Valpo, neither student’s journey has been without its challenges. “I was working, doing research, and taking lots of courses as an engineering major. It’s not exactly easy. I struggled a bit with some mental health things over the years, but I feel like I’ve come such a long way looking back, especially with these triumphs of being published and having presented at SOURCE. If you told me freshman year I’d be doing these things, I would think you’re crazy! But now, having had this opportunity and having come so far makes me extremely grateful,” Charles shares.

The collaborative spirit at Valpo was a significant factor in their success. Fayol highlights how the close relationships with professors and the personalized attention at Valpo made a difference. “Instructors here really notice students. Professor Khorbotly knew about my strong interest in AI, which led to this project,” he explains. 

Jennifer Prough ‘91, Ph.D., dean of Christ College — The Honors College and professor of humanities and East Asian studies, smiling and holding up Fayol’s application.

Before even coming to Valpo, however, Fayol recognized this same sense of genuine care from the Valpo community when he received a personalized letter from Jennifer Prough ‘91, Ph.D., dean of Christ College — The Honors College and professor of humanities and East Asian studies. Included in the letter was a photo of Jeni reading Fayol’s application. 

“Valpo really applies the concept of loving your neighbor as yourself. I don’t have any particular faith, but what I observe on campus is that if something bad happens to somebody, everybody’s going to try to help and the president will send out an email just to make sure everybody’s mentally healthy. I think Valpo’s faith-based values make the school really attractive,” Fayol shares.

According to Fayol, this genuine care he felt from Professor Khorbotly and Dean Prough stems from the deeply rooted values that ground Valpo’s community — the very values that kept him grounded during a personally challenging time of his academic journey. 

Fayol Ateufack Zeudom ’26 smiling for a photo in between his parents at an airport.

“After my first semester, my dad was diagnosed with chronic blood cancer, so all my family’s money was dedicated to his medical expenses. I found myself in a situation where I had to handle my tuition and manage all of this extra stuff as well. School was not even the main thing anymore, and that was a really challenging process. Even now I still have to think about how I’m going to pay for school, but Valpo has helped a lot. After communicating with all my instructors, they understand my situation. If I don’t show up to class or turn in homework late, they understand that I’m working because I have to pay for school. Valpo also gave me a good scholarship and they gave me aid even though that wasn’t part of my scholarship package initially. And my instructors recommended me for scholarships from external sources, too. One company, for example, committed to paying $10,000 for my fall tuition,” Fayol exclaims.

Looking ahead, both students are excited about future projects. Charles is continuing his research on neural networks, while Fayol plans to delve into robotics and wireless communication. They are enthusiastic about participating in SOURCE again next year and are eager to explore new frontiers in their fields as well as discover new ways that interdisciplinary collaboration can benefit the world.

Charles Smith ’25 and Fayol Ateufack Zeudom ’26 smiling at the camera in front of a Valparaiso University flag reading, "Grounded, We Radiate".

In speaking about their experience at SOURCE as not only a presenter but an attendee, Fayol, who dreams of one day going to Mars, shares: “I read one poster about how plants have difficulty growing at low gravity, and then they grow really quickly if the gravity is higher. So, that made me think because I’m really passionate about space exploration. On Mars, the gravity is six times less than on Earth. So how do you grow plants on Mars? When she [fellow SOURCE presenter] explained this process, she described using centrifuges to increase gravity in an artificial environment so the plants grow faster. That was an interesting project!” Fayol shares excitedly.

As Charles puts it, “At Valpo, we all have the same end goal — to discover something new and work on something impactful. It’s never about competition, but about collaboration and pushing each other to excel.”

Fayol’s and Charles’ journeys are not just a testament to the supportive and inspiring community at Valpo — where dreams are nurtured, opportunities abound, and innovations are born — but to their hard work and dedication most of all. We are so proud of what you’ve both accomplished and have no doubt the best is yet to come for your bright futures ahead!

Charles Smith ’25 and Fayol Ateufack Zeudom ’26 smiling at the camera in front of a Valparaiso University flag reading, "Grounded, We Radiate".