By Kat J. McAlpine
When Zachary Morek was ten years old, he had a habit of using his free time to experiment with the application codes on his sister’s TI 83 calculator. Always interested in computing devices, in high school he made sure to sign up for computer science courses. When he filled out personality and skill questionnaires intended to unveil ideal career choices, he continually selected computer science professions. By the time Zach was in his senior year, he had received a letter from UConn’s School of Engineering inviting him to consider a dual degree through the EUROTECH program. The letter explained that EUROTECH is a dynamic, five-year degree program that allows students to simultaneously earn a B.A. in German Studies and a B.S. in Engineering with the opportunity to live, study and intern in Germany. Zach, intrigued by the hybrid program, decided to pursue computer science and engineering under the EUROTECH program. In addition to being admitted into the program, he was awarded scholarships based on his high SAT scores and overall academic excellence.
Zach’s freshman year at UConn was somewhat typical, yet he managed to avoid monstrously large general education lectures by seeking small classes and by substituting in the additional credits he earned through high school AP classes. He does, however, remember suffering through 8 a.m. classes resulting from his freshman-level “last pick” class selection appointment. While the engineering coursework was considerable, he admitted “The type of person who chooses to pursue AP’s in high school is the same person who learns to accept college coursework as a welcome challenge.” Zach laughed and elaborated, “You might not be able to believe this, but in some way I actually began to enjoy the work; a few of my friends and I would get together for all-nighters to push through our work. While some college students might choose to spend Thursday night at the bar, I met with my homework group and we turned studying into a social occasion.”
He also took the initiative to immerse himself in many different areas of involvement on campus. Zach is a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity and has participated in the Information Management Association (IMA), the Association for Computer Machinery (ACM), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the Student Entrepreneurial Organization (SEO). In addition, he has dabbled in the boxing and fencing clubs.
Ultimately, Zach’s goal has been to acquire real world experience through internship opportunities. Using the internship search engine provided on UConn’s website, he applied to several internships during his 2nd year. During the summer of 2008, he worked at ING Insurance Company in Hartford, where he spent 40hours each week working as a database intern for the insurance giant and gained invaluable experience.
As the summer came to a close, Zach prepared for the apex of the EUROTECH program. At the start of his junior year, he embarked on a year-long trip abroad to study and intern in Germany. He spent fall 2008 taking courses at the University of Stuttgart, where the cultural differences between the U.S. and Germany were obvious. He was assigned to dorm-like housing where he lived with German students; however, Stuttgart’s university-assigned housing was not restricted to current undergraduates. Instead the university has a system of incrementally increasing the housing rates for graduated students. This pricing scheme gives graduates an incentive to move out on their own, but also provides them with a place to live in the interim between graduating and finding a job. As a result, some of Zach’s roommates were graduates employed in co-ops. Another difference Zach encountered was that unlike American universities, at Stuttgart a student will attend an entire semester of classes to prepare for one cumulative exam, which determines the course grade. At first, Zach struggled with the illusion of freedom that came from the lack of ongoing assignments. About halfway through the semester, he finally buckled down to begin preparing for the finals – a decision that paid off when he successfully made his way through the end-of-term exams.
The time he spent abroad also provided him with the opportunity to travel to other destinations in Europe. He took weekend trips to visit friends studying in Madrid and Paris. He also traveled to Poland to spend Christmas with extended family members. “Not one of them knew any English. The only way I could communicate was to speak in German to an aunt who knew a little bit of Dutch – apparently German is similar enough to Dutch that she could usually get the gist of what I was trying to say. To say the least, it was a memorable Christmas vacation,” said Zach.
At the start of the spring 2009 semester, Zach returned to Stuttgart to intern at the city’s High Speed Computing Center, where he was tasked with finding a solution to a pressing issue: the company lacked a database to keep track of vital computer statistics. “The center has so many, many computers in the building that there are strict regulations about the number of machines that can be turned on at any one time. Essentially, the center is limited by its own power capacity; there simply isn’t enough electricity supplied to the building to run more than a certain number of machines,” Zach explained. However, prior to Zach’s arrival, the center still used a labor-intensive, archaic ‘pen and paper’ system of logging computer usage. During his three-month internship, Zach designed and implemented a database system that automatically calculates the energy usage and systematically keeps track of every unit in the facility. His database revolutionized the Computing Center’s method of recording and regulating their computer usage.
Besides sharpening his technical skills, the internship pushed Zach into attaining fluency in German. “At the beginning of the internship, I spoke enough German that I could make elementary-level conversation with my co-workers. By the end, however, I was so comfortable in conversation that our discussions grew from talking about the weather to talking about the intricacies of American politics. My peers were fascinated by the Obama election and inauguration, which were taking place during my year in Germany.”
After his year in Stuttgart, Zach returned to Storrs to complete his fourth and fifth years in the EUROTECH program. His experience abroad continues to play an important role in shaping his career in engineering. “This past summer I was offered a prestigious database internship at The Hartford Insurance Company. I believe my self-assurance and skill set that I had developed in Stuttgart made me a qualified internship candidate.” Zach also mentioned that his interview skills were in part due to his experiences at UConn-hosted career fairs, which helped him to develop confident dialogue skills with prospective employers.
As it turns out, Zach’s supervisors at The Hartford were so impressed with his work ethic and his technical ability that he was offered a permanent position and invited to participate in the company’s Technology Leadership Development Program. He currently works part-time about eight hours a week at the company’s headquarters in Hartford. After he receives his bachelor’s degree in May, Zach will assume his position at The Hartford full-time. The Development Program comprises rotational work periods in which he will have the opportunity to work in the company’s Connecticut, Minnesota and New York locations. Zach credits his distinctive EUROTECH degree with giving him a leading edge in today’s job market.