Faces of UMSI: Thais Gonzalez
Thais Gonzalez had a plan. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
A senior outfielder on the University of Michigan softball team, Gonzalez was scheduled to graduate last April with a bachelor's degree from the Ross School of Business. She already had a job lined up in the Bay Area. However, like so much over the last year, things changed.
"I started to hear all these work-from-home stories," said Gonzalez, "and it got me thinking, 'Am I excited to have this job and this extremely high rent there in northern California just to be staring at my computer at home?' I loved my coworkers, loved my team, but I wasn't going to be interacting with those people face to face. I knew that it was a really good opportunity, but it also wasn't my dream role."
So, she took a step back. Grad school had never been on her radar, but she started to explore her options. Her roommate, four-year softball student manager Sam Thick, was enrolled in UMSI, so Gonzalez was already familiar with the coursework and career paths when she found the Master of Science in Information (MSI) degree program.
She applied, got accepted and realized what a great opportunity it was to identify and pursue that dream role and dream job at the dream company right out of college and really work on the problems she wanted to solve rather than simply add another good work experience line to her resume.
The MSI program can be traced back to 1996, when UMSI transitioned from the School of Information and Library Studies to the School of Information. The MSI features three areas of concentration: digital archives and library science, human-computer interaction and user experience, and data science and analytics. But the program also prides itself on its flexibility and customization, something that particularly appealed to Gonzalez.
"It's kind of a choose-your-own-path kind of program," she said. "I graduated undergrad from the business school with concentrations in technology and product development, and I was always really interested in software engineering, building products and designing software to help people. That's what a lot of my internship experience has been, and I wanted more academic experience in that field. This program is really a perfect fit, because it blends all those areas of computer science, user experience research and product design that I was looking for."
Gonzalez emphasizes the program is not simply a "you and your computer" experience. Many of her classes are centered on solving problems in the real world and incorporate projects with outside clients — the Grand Valley State library system was one this semester.
"It introduces you to how technology is being used in the real world and at a high level," she said, "and it introduces you to the different leaders within technology, what they're doing, what's evolving and then how to best communicate with a variety of people from different backgrounds so you know what to expect when you tackle these problems."
Gonzalez arrived at the MSI program with prior real-world experience through the accumulation of several internships spread across her four years as an undergraduate. She spent the summer between her sophomore and junior years in a software engineering fellowship in San Francisco, then returned to the Bay Area the following summer to work for a cybersecurity company. Most recently, last fall, she had a user-experience design internship with a community foundation based out of southwest Florida.
Perhaps the greatest impact of the multiple internships — outside of expanding her skillset and building her network — was to identify and refine her passion.
"I really want to see technology applied not just to silly things like one-click shopping," said Gonzalez, "but more in education, more in the fight against the climate crisis, more in creating equal access to equal opportunities. I think the one probably closest to my heart is the environment, and I'm really interested in how we can use technology to reverse the damage we've done."
She specifically identified greenhouse technologies that use sensors and robotics to manage it — all of which is controlled through software systems — as well as the growing demand for clean energy as areas of particular interest.
"I think the big thing looking forward is really trying to find a way to unite all these solutions so that they're not just isolated pockets of test runs or pilot systems," said Gonzalez. "Those software systems that manage all the information and are taking from hardware, from sensors, from APIs online, unite them into one central database so that people can control it from one dashboard and we can have cleaner cities and overall cleaner systems.
"I think one of the best things about the MSI program is that I'm learning technical and practical skills that can really be a foundation to apply to all different problems," she said. "In the future, I can look at the technology companies that are really striving to make a difference and see where my skills fit."
With one more year of her graduate program to go, Gonzalez, naturally, has another internship lined up for the summer, this time with PEAK6, a financial technology company based in Chicago, where she'll be working as a product manager in its technology division. The position will allow her to combine several different areas of her interests and experience, from business to coding to user experience design and the chance to work with a big group of people.
But first, she has the opportunity to properly wrap up her softball career after a breakout senior season — she led the Wolverines with a .357 batting average — was cut short last year after just 23 games.
With three weeks remaining in the 2021 regular season, Michigan narrowly leads the Big Ten Conference with a 24-5 record and recently wrapped a successful homestand by taking eight of nine over the stretch — the program's first games at Alumni Field in 695 days. Gonzalez, known for her speed around the basepath, scored three runs over the homestand, including two in a dramatic doubleheader sweep against Northwestern Saturday, April 24.
Softball has provided much-needed relief from the unique stresses and challenges presented by COVID-19 and a nearly all-virtual academic year.
"It's been great having the chance to be on the field with these girls and work out in whatever safe manner we can," said Gonzalez. "I think we appreciate it more and really focus on what we have been able to do, because we know a lot of people haven't had that same experience over the last year.
"It's definitely been an adjustment and a challenge. There were days in the fall, where I just moved from my bed to my desk to my computer, and my Apple Watch was yelling at me to move in the middle of Zoom lectures. But I feel like despite all of that, I get to sign up for classes I'm really excited to take, work on projects very much based in the real world and with some great teams of students. It's been a really empowering experience."
- Leah Howard, MGoBlue.com
Continuing the series that began in 2016-17, each Wednesday MGoBlue.com highlights a Michigan student-athlete and their academic pursuits. This story originally appeared as one of MGoBlue.com’s Scholar-Athlete Stories, presented by Absopure.