Nicholas Gonzalez is the president of UPE. He talks about the organization's mission to provide students of all majors with opportunities to develop technically and professionally.
Learn more about UPE: https://upe.cs.fiu.edu
Nicholas' profile on FIU News: https://news.fiu.edu/2021/meet-a-miamitech-leader-of-tomorrow-president-of-upe,-nicholas-gonzalez
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Panther Personalities: Episode 14 [Nicholas Gonzalez]
Valdes: This is Panther Personalities presented by Florida International University.
Drucker: Hello FIU family and friends, and welcome to Panther Personalities where students are stars, research is relatable, and FIU tells its own stories. I’m your host David Drucker. On today’s show, we’re talking with Nicholas Gonzalez. He is a student and President of UPE, a student-tech organization at FIU that is massive. I think our listeners are going to be surprised by our interview this week because of the width and breadth of this organization. You’re gonna find out how many students are in it, what they do to advance students’ knowledge of tech and their connections, and if you’ve ever wondered how strong the Miami tech movement really can be, just wait until you hear this interview. I think you’re going to be surprised. So without further delay, here’s our conversation.
Drucker: Okay, we have another special Panther guest on the show, Nicholas Gonzalez. Welcome to our program here. Good to have you on.
Gonzalez: Thank you, David, for having me. I’m super excited to be on the Panther Personalities podcast.
Drucker: Well, Nicholas, the pleasure is ours, because you are one of these students who is a leader of a major organization here at FIU. It totally blows my mind that we have this here. It's, like, one of the biggest . . . Isn’t it, like, the biggest tech organization in South Florida or something like that, or the biggest student-tech . . . ?
Gonzalez: It is the biggest student-tech organization, I believe, in Florida and one of the largest UPE chapters in the whole nation.
Drucker: Wow, so let’s start there. What, what is UPE, this thing that you’re President of, and what, what does UPE stand for, and like, what is it generally?
Gonzalez: Well, like you mentioned, we are FIU’s largest organization for technology. We currently have over 800 active members. And what we do is provide experiential learning opportunities for students through our various technical workshops that cover every area of tech from UI/UX to engineering. And students can also work on real life projects in our programs to boost their resume, and we, apart from providing these experiential learning opportunities for students to get skills that translate to jobs in the tech industry, we do professional and career development through our programs to prepare students for every step of the interview process, all the way from preparing their resumes to connecting them with our sponsors for job opportunities. We also host the largest Hackathon in Florida, ShellHacks at FIU. So to sum it all up, we essentially are trying to bridge the gap between academia and career to really build a real life API, connecting students from education to industry.
Drucker: So, what is an API?
Gonzalez: So, an API in computer science terms is essentially a connection that you make between world program to a database, for example.
Drucker: Mmmm. Um, and what’s a database? I’m not a tech guy, so you’re gonna have to explain all this, uh, [laughter] stuff.
Gonzalez: Yeah, no worries. A database is essentially where you store a large array of information.
Drucker: Ah, okay, okay. Gotcha. So, Nicholas, you mentioned that you basically kind of, this organization serves as a basically gigantic bridge, you know. How many people are in this thing?
Gonzalez: So we currently have about 800 active members in our tech community.
Drucker: Wow. And so, take me more specifically into the kind of things you do. What kind of activities are you doing? You mentioned the Hackathon. Can you go over what that is, and what that’s all about?
Gonzalez: Right, of course. So ShellHacks, as I mentioned, is Florida’s largest Hackathon and one of the largest diversity Hackathons in the entire nation now with over 1,500 participants that we had. It is an event founded by UPE where students really of all majors can come together to showcase their skills and build projects to propose solutions on just about anything and showcase it to our sponsors. This year we had over 60 sponsors including the top tech firms like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. So it really is an amazing opportunity for our students to connect with companies and likewise for companies to connect with our local talent.
Drucker: So do these companies hire FIU grads from these things? Is that common?
Gonzalez: Of course, very common. Just this year, I would say we’ve had close to 30+ students receive either internships or full-time offers from these top tech companies.
Drucker: Wow, that’s pretty cool. And so, tell me more about the Hackathon. Once they get to this Hackathon, what are these students doing, like, are they, like, trying to create, like, great codes or, like, something like that? What actually goes on here?
Gonzalez: Well in that sense, yes, it depends on the students. So students can either get to the Hackathon and join our team matching event where they’re matched with a particular team, or they can come in with their team and project already in mind to propose a solution. Or in other words, act together a solution for a real-life problem that is ongoing right now.
Drucker: Aaaw, okay, so you really get to be creative.
Gonzalez: Right. Creativity is essentially the core of being a Hackathon participant.
Drucker: And is there, is this one of those things where it’s like, oh, we’re gonna drink coffee, and you know, work on this, you know, for 18 hours [laughter] straight?
Gonzalez: It actually is 72 hours straight.
Drucker: WOW! Oh my gosh! So, wait, do people, like, stay in, like, one place for all of this, or, or, do they do it, like, virtually?
Gonzalez: Well, this year was virtual due to COVID, but typically they would stay at FIU in our PG6 Computer Science building for the whole 72 hours.
Drucker: Oh my goodness. That’s cool, man. So, in addition to Hackathon, you know, I guess, Nicholas, just, could you tell us a little bit about, what are your other favorite experiences with UPE that, like, led you to be so involved and, uh, like, what are your best memories so far with the organization?
Gonzalez: So it’s hard to pinpoint since we’re in the middle of a disruptive and large tech movement in Miami, so it’s been great being able to experience everything that’s going on, but if I were to pinpoint one in particular due to my specific passion for education, it would be having been able to direct our UP Ignite program, which is our K-12 outreach program that provides free after-school STEM lessons for students, and especially those in underrepresented communities that may not have the proper resources so that we can spark their interest in going to college and in pursuing a STEM career. This year, I was able to grow the program to serving over 15 schools, and over 300 students were enrolled in Miami-Dade County.
Drucker: Wow. So, um, does this all happen remotely, uh, for right now, or . . . ?
Gonzalez: So for right now, yes. Ever since COVID, we transitioned remotely, and we found this actually worked better. That way our volunteers can cover even more schools that they could not get to because of transportation issues.
Drucker: Got you. So that’s cool, to kind of pass it on, you know, to, you know, the young kids.
Gonzalez: Right. It’s all about inspiring the community and building it up.
Drucker: So would you say that’s, like, your favorite part about being in UPE? Or aside from this, you know, is there another aspect of this organization that stands out to you?
Gonzalez: But for me, it’s the idea of being a part of something bigger than myself and being able to build and create, like I said, community, especially being at the forefront of the tech movement that’s happening in our city, especially to be able to empower others just like yourself in your community to show them what opportunities they have out there for them, and seeing them essentially just raising their hands and saying, “I want to be the next engineer at Facebook, Google, or Microsoft.”
Drucker: So, there’s got to be, since this is open to all majors, some sort of wide variety of students who come into this place. Like, you know, is it mostly Computer Science or, like, do you find people coming from all walks of the university, really?
Gonzalez: Mostly, since we are a tech community, it’s Computer Science, Information Technology, and Computer Engineering, but all students are welcome to participate. We are major agnostic, and we truly believe that technology can be used in every field. And it is
being used in every field with this new industrial revolution. We’re seeing technology used more and more in every field. For example, in medicine, they’re using AI to detect diseases. And even in agriculture, computing is being used to make data-driven decisions for farming. So it is essential for everyone in the 21st century to not just know how to use regular tech but know about the inner workings of potentially building tech as well.
Drucker: So if I’m just, like, a student and, like, I don’t know anything about tech, I can walk up to one of these events and, like, someone will start teaching me or guide me where I need to go?
Gonzalez: Yes, our workshops are designed with beginners in mind to give them that building block to be able to break into learning more about technology.
Drucker: Ah so, okay, so this is really designed to, like, take in everyone, even though it’s mostly a computer science crowd. You’re saying it’s really, like, kind of built for the every person.
Gonzalez: Yes, we are built for everyone, and we have workshops covering topics from an array of difficulty from beginner to intermediate and advanced.
Druker: So, uh, Nicholas, you know, I’m wondering, um, you’re the President of UPE, which is a big organization. First, you know, can you tell us just a little about yourself, like, uh, what year are you in, uh, what your major is, and do you have an idea of what you want to do after college?
Gonzalez: Right now, I’m a senior here at FIU studying Computer Science. And after college, I’m going to break into the industry as a software engineer initially, but I see myself doing a lot more on the side when it comes to philanthropy and even business. To give you a story to put it in perspective, when I was applying for scholarships first coming into FIU, for the scholarship that I got now, I remember clearly writing to the scholarship committee that I wanted to be a part of growing Miami’s tech industry and making it the next tech hub. I saw the potential even then for Miami to be just like the Bay area or Houston, so I do see myself working on building start-ups, initiatives, and most importantly, like I mentioned earlier, my personal passion for K-12 education, potentially building a STEM school or institution of some sort.
Drucker: Man, so you were on the Miami tech wave for a while, uh, before it went mainstream. So, uh, what is it about Miami tech which is this, you know, movement that I think has gained popularity more in the last, like, year or so, um, that has made you so optimistic that Miami can become like the Bay area and can become, like, a home for a lot of tech companies?
Gonzalez: So it’s seeing the talent that is coming out of FIU and UPE in general, seeing that we have broken the narratives I would say that were placed on our city in the past both on the student side and on the company side. Companies used to think that there was no talent coming out of Miami, and students used to think that if they wanted to have a chance at breaking into a tech industry, they needed to go to a top target tech school or Ivy League school, and I believe we’ve moved past that already.
Drucker: Hmmm. So now, like, you think UPE is gonna play, like, a big role in the growth of the Miami tech movement?
Gonzalez: Absolutely. And just to highlight this is probably my favorite question, just because of how much I love what is really going on in our city right now with the Miami tech movement. So, I spoke a little bit about narratives, and I believe that the movement really boils down to breaking past narratives based on our city. One of them, like I said, being that we do not have the educational institution or college to sustain a tech movement, and the same for the student side, breaking the students’ fear of them not being able to go into a tech industry without an Ivy League education. That used to be a general consensus that there was, but the proof is in the numbers, already, that we have beaten that narrative. We have students coming out of UPE and FIU with offers from Facebook, Google, and all these top tech companies. And FIU just jumped 17 spots on the U.S. News and World Ranking Report of Top Universities. So really, like I mentioned in the beginning, what we’re doing is in UPE ensuring that we provide students with the right networking opportunities with a community surrounding them, and most importantly, with an environment for them to have experiential learning opportunities to learn skills that are relevant to the industry right now so they can break into the tech industry. And how we support this movement really comes down to ensuring that we strengthen FIU as a leading institution to support this type of movement and that we strengthen our talent base for companies that want to come to Miami to see that there’s a strong, diverse pipeline available, and not just diverse, but talented. We don’t want companies to see us as a way to fill diversity quotas, but rather see our students as top talent.
Drucker: And you know, I think I spoke with a former, uh, I think your current advisor, former, uh, student in UPE, Jose Maldonado. You might know him, Nicholas . . .
Gonzalez: Of course, yes.
Drucker: . . . yeah, he was telling me, because he works on the XBox Team at Microsoft, that there were, like, something like 30 Panthers who have gone on to work there. I don’t know if I have the exact number right, but it’s like FIU really is churning out these grads who go onto, you know, work in elite jobs, you know.
Gonzalez: About 30-something sounds about right, yes.
Drucker: Wow. So, Nicholas, man, um, I think that’s all the questions we had. Appreciate you coming on the show, letting us know about this organization that, I think, uh, FIU Panthers can be proud of.
Gonzalez: Thank you once again for having me here. It was a pleasure to be on the show.
Drucker: Alright, that’s going to do it for today’s episode. If you’re loving the show, the best way to help others discover it is to hit the Follow or Subscribe button wherever you’re listening and give us a five-star review. Appreciate you for listening. And now, let’s thank all our contributors here at Panther Personalities who have made this show possible. Our music is the FIU Samba given to us by Director of FIU Bands Barry Bernhardt. Our artwork is done by FIU designers David Roberts, Oscar Negret, and Barbie Ramos. Our intro is voiced by Alexandra Valdes. And this show has been edited by FIU’s Strategic Communications, Government and External Affairs. We’ll be back with in a couple of weeks with a new episode. In the meantime,
you can check out more stories and podcasts about FIU @news.fiu.edu. Talk with you soon Panther friends and family. Paws up.