First ILEE graduates give program high marks for career enhancement
For a number of years, the University of Illinois has strategically fostered an ecosystem that has allowed students, particularly those in engineering, to pursue entrepreneurial activities while completing their undergraduate degrees. Look no further than this year’s commencement speaker and PayPal co-founder Max Levchin as a prime beneficiary.
This month the College of Engineering continues to expand that ecosystem by conferring the first two graduates of its dual-degree program in Innovation, Leadership, and Engineering Entrepreneurship (ILEE). The program, which received Illinois Board of Higher Education approval just 20 months ago, allows students completing an undergraduate degree in an engineering discipline to concurrently fulfill requirements for an ILEE bachelor’s degree.
Although the program is officially less than two years old, it has its first graduates in Connie Fan, a computer science major from Portland, Oregon, and Tom Jozefowicz, a systems’ engineering and design major from River Forest, Illinois. Jozefowicz, even delayed graduation a year to complete the dual-degree program.
“Once I learned about the program, I was very intrigued by everything it had to offer,” said Jozefowicz, a self-proclaimed early adopter. “It gives me a broader skillset, helping me refine ones that are related, yet aren’t necessarily a part of your engineering curriculum. Those include project skills, leadership skills, problem-finding skills, and development skills. It builds upon what you’d learn in any part of engineering and introduces you to people who can enhance your career.”
In some respects, Illinois Engineering sought to acknowledge those innovation and entrepreneurial activities already taking place. However, the degree is not just for those students engaged in startups. In fact, the first two recipients have instead used their experiences to grow as leaders and project managers and to enhance job prospects in industry.
While in high school, Fan developed an infrared sensor to help the blind navigate easier. Her experience living in the Innovation Living and Learning Community (LLC) on campus exposed her to entrepreneurship and leadership. Since then, Fan has had three software engineering internships, two with Intel and one with Microsoft. She has served on the Executive Board for the Association of Computing Machinery, as head teaching assistant for CS 491, and as director of Sail, which introduces high school students to the possibilities of computer science.
Even as a high school student at Oak Park-River Forest High School in suburban Chicago, Jozefowicz developed his own iPhone apps and began developing a robotic myoelectric arm. The President of the Nu Xi Chapter of Kappa Kappa Psi and a sousaphone section leader with the Marching Illini, he led a team to launch a new Marching Illini website. Over the last three years, he has organized the “Sousaphone 5K,” a fundraiser asking volunteers to run the 5K during Illinois Marathon weekend while wearing a sousaphone. This year it raised $8,000 for the Crisis Nursery.
Following graduation, Fan will join Microsoft as a software engineering and project manager. She credits her experiences in pursuing an ILEE degree for helping to develop her problem-solving skills and knowledge of how to work well in a group. She was part of a team that developed a virtual reality platform for Jump traders to navigate through screens on an Oculus Rift instead of needing computer monitors.
“When you join a company, especially a startup, you often have to wear a lot of different hats,” Fan noted. “They might hire you as a software engineer, but with a team of 10-20 people, you are going to have a hand in everything. For instance, saying you can code and provide some software architecture only goes so far in that setting. However, if you say ‘I can do high tech venture marketing, I can help navigate the legal stuff, and I’ve worked with clients,’ you demonstrate the interdisciplinary know-how companies are looking for. These are all subjects of required classes for the ILEE degree.”
Jozefowicz, who wants to serve his country in some capacity, says ILEE helped lay the groundwork for setting up an interdisciplinary network.
“If I wanted to build a startup today, I know more like-minded people who want to go out and attack their own problems or take on a side project,” he said. “In addition, our instructors bring very intimate experiences within industry.”
Both agree that adding an ILEE degree has been valuable and encourages future engineering students to consider the program.
“You learn a lot of valuable skills, you network faster than you would anywhere else, and you take classes that will apply to things you’ll do later,” Fan said. “If you are entrepreneurial inclined at all, you should try it.”
“In addition to solving problems, ILEE helps give you the foresight to define the problem in the first place,” Jozefowicz added. “Whether or not you want to start your own company, you can challenge the status quo and ask the question, ‘How can I do this differently?’ It makes you a more well-rounded engineering student.”