Professional Practice Fellows test classroom lessons in leading companies

None of the four master's students in UMSI’s inaugural Professional Practice Fellows Program (PPFP) cohort comes from a formal information or technology background. Instead, each of the students—whose undergraduate degrees include English literature, philosophy, international studies and political science—came to UMSI after entering the tech field through a side door.

PPFP gives promising MSI students the opportunity to join a local tech company while also providing full tuition, a faculty or alumni mentor, leadership development, a laptop stipend and other benefits. The program began in fall 2015.

One of the fellows’ favorite things about the program has been the opportunity to work in leading companies. This opportunity was especially valuable for this cohort of fellows, whose previous tech accomplishments were the result of on-the-job experience and self-study rather than formal education. 

“I think it’s cool to just go into a field where you’re brand new while also learning in the classroom,” says fellow Justin Cohen, who took advantage of opportunities in public relations and advocacy internships to pick up skills that led to a job as a digital campaigner. “If I’d just applied for my current position at ForeSee, I wouldn’t have even been considered.” 

The fellows also appreciate the diversity of backgrounds and disciplines at UMSI. Josh Gardner, who became interested in data while working as a teacher and developed his skills through Coursera courses, agrees. “Seeing this stuff in the wild is so different from seeing it inside the classroom,” he says. “Having the opportunity to take what I’m learning in class and see how to use it at work and where I might need to learn more: That has been a tremendous experience.”

“At SI, the diversity of backgrounds of the people at the school is just a great asset because you’re dealing with people who have a computer science background and people who were in English or international relations, so you don’t have to feel intimidated at all,” says Jake Silva, who majored in international studies and later taught himself to program, beginning with HTML tutorials he found through Google.

Sunny Choi studied English in college and became interested in user experience while working as an editor and content specialist at Citrix. She encourages anyone interested in user experience, HCI or other information fields, whether they have a formal technology background or not, to apply to UMSI. “You don’t have to come in with all the knowledge,” she says. “I think this is a great place to learn and grow and be proactive.”

Fellow Profiles

Josh Gardner

Josh Gardner studied philosophy as part of U-M’s LSA Honors Program. Upon graduating, he joined Teach for America, where he taught high school algebra and geometry in Miami. When his two years in the program were up, he decided he wasn’t finished with education yet, so he moved to New Orleans and taught middle school math at a KIPP charter school there. Through teaching, he began to realize how much data existed in schools and how useful it could be. After two years at KIPP, his principal created a position for him in which he taught a tech class and, while beefing up his skills through Coursera courses, worked with data on academics and behavior to benefit the school. “Bringing all that together had a huge impact on our school’s culture and on academics,” he says.

Josh’s fellowship sees him working as a digital analyst on the data science team at ProQuest, looking at how people use the site and how the experience can be improved. “For a company that’s focused on connecting people with the information they’re looking for, that’s extremely important,” he says. UMSI assistant professor Eytan Adar is his mentor.

Jake Silva

While working in international affairs in Washington, D.C., Jake Silva became inspired by the way technological innovations were changing people’s way of life. This inspired him to learn to program from the ground up, teaching himself HTML and CSS through tutorials he found through Google. A conversation with a programmer friend motivated Jake to learn about back end development, and after a few years, he started building websites and applications for clients, continuing to work full-time in international affairs at the same time.

Through the fellowship, Jake is working on JSTOR’s Labs Team, whose mandate is to shape the future of research and teaching by creating new ways of interacting with JSTOR’s expansive collection of material. He also finds time for many of UMSI’s extracurricular activities, such as DataDive and entrepreneurship events. His mentor is UMSI alumnus Justin DeLay.

Read a full profile of Jake here.

Sunny Choi

Sunny Choi came to UMSI after a stint as an editor and content specialist at CITRIX, where she worked on a user experience team. There, she edited and wrote content on the user interfaces of products, created a design pattern library and conducted user research and usability studies—experiences that made her realize she wanted to learn more about UX design. As she worked with UX developers and designers there, she says, “I noticed that a lot of them had gone through HCI programs, and actually some were alumni of UMSI”—a factor that motivated her to apply to the school.

Sunny is working on the UX team at ProQuest as part of her fellowship. She says she values the opportunity to apply what she learns in class on the job and to learn from colleagues there. Her PPFP mentor is Nikki Candelore Roda, a 2013 UMSI alumna who works as an interaction designer with VMware in Palo Alto, California.

Justin Cohen

Justin Cohen majored in English literature and political science and developed an interest in user experience after getting a job doing digital campaigning with NARAL Pro-Choice America in Washington, D.C. Starting as an intern there, he took advantage of opportunities to enhance his digital skills and continued working there in online advocacy and digital campaigning until coming to UMSI.

As a fellow, Justin is working as a usability analyst at ForeSee, which helps companies, non-profits and government agencies to understand their customers’ experiences both in stores and on digital platforms. His most rewarding project there has been with a children’s hospital. “It’s cool seeing how much a place like a children’s hospital cares about this kind of technology,” he says. “It just shows that technology is so far reaching and can actually change people’s lives.” His mentor is UMSI alumnus Dan Marano.