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Jose Angel Vargas, a software engineering major set to graduate in 2019, took a few detours on his way to UCI’s Department of Informatics: attending The Art Institute of California, working at Universal Studios and spending four years at a community college. He’s now on a more direct route to future success, having found his calling in the field of software engineering and landing an internship at Taco Bell Corporate. “Software engineering is perfect for me,” says Vargas. He also seems to have found the perfect fit in choosing UCI. “When I walk these grounds,” he says, “it doesn’t feel like I’m limited by anything.”

Can you talk about your path to UCI and decision to study software engineering?
My path started in 2007. After graduating from high school, I went to The Art Institute of California in Santa Monica for two and a half years to study interactive media design, but that turned out to be more of a hobby than a career for me. I took a three-year break and moved up the ladder as a supervisor at Universal Studios in the Department of Operations, but then I decided to go back to school. This time, I did the community college route.

 I didn’t know what I wanted to study, so I went to the career center, where I took a series of personality tests. I got a list of 200 career options that matched my personality traits, and I had to research all of them — the projected growth, typical responsibilities, average salary and so on. It eventually came down to being a comedian or going into computer science! My classes at The Art Institute had introduced me to programming and I was comfortable around code, so I tried out computer science. After four years at the community college, I landed here at UCI, and it has been a dream ever since.

It’s the best of both worlds here, because software engineering is right in the middle of the computer science–informatics spectrum. I learned that software engineering is the happy middle for me.

Have you had a favorite professor or class at UCI?
My two favorite classes so far have been Informatics 121: Software Design, with André van der Hoek, and Informatics 131: Human-Computer Interaction, with Matthew Bietz. Van der Hoek and Bietz are two really great professors, and I think it was the blend of both the professor and class that hit it out of the park for me.

What activities are you involved in at UCI?
I was a peer academic advisor for about a year; I’m part of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) organization; and I also joined Andre’s research group, the Software Design and Collaboration Laboratory (SDCL), after taking his 121 class last quarter. More recently, I started an internship with Taco Bell Corporate that will run through the end of the year. I’m working in the IT department for the production services team.

What has been the best part of your experience at UCI?
There have been so many things on so many levels. On an emotional level, I feel like I’m part of a family. When I was at the community college, everybody was great, but the students were there to just get in and get out. Here, it feels amazing, like I’m part of something bigger.

 On a network level, I think the best part was joining the ICS Student Affairs Office team as a peer academic counselor. I was able to build contacts not only professionally but also with other students, so I had more friends in classes.

The opportunity here is also amazing. I live in L.A., and growing up surrounded by gangs and violence and drugs, you always walk with this weight or this looming ceiling. But when you’re here at UCI, you have professors who know you on a first-name basis, and they’re on the cutting edge of research within their field. It makes me feel like anything and everything is possible!

All of the opportunities that have been offered to me is proof of that. I would never have imagined I’d end up at Taco Bell Corporate, but it was because I knew somebody at the Student Affairs Office who asked me to send in my resume. And maybe someday, a connection I make through Taco Bell Corporate will help me become a director.

Is that your future goal?
I definitely want to be a director of a technology group or a chief information officer, but I also want to exercise my entrepreneurial skills and build something, preferably within the field of technology. I’m not sure which way my path will take me.

Do you have any advice for prospective students?

As a peer academic advisor, it would hurt my heart every time a senior would come into my office thinking everything was on track, but it wasn’t. Graduation would be delayed by a quarter or two, and the implications could be huge for the student’s family. So, understand the implications of your decisions, and don’t make the Student Affairs Office a one-stop shop. Visit often to confirm that your academic plan is set up correctly.

Also, find your spot within computer science spectrum. Give yourself the chance to explore all the different avenues — AI, networks, systems and software, informatics — and find your niche. Everybody is good at something. You just have to find your place and then give it your all.

— Shani Murray