Career Q&A: Dennis Williams II ’14, American Studies

Every once in a while, we’ll chat with an alum about what they do and how they got there. Today, we’re talking with Dennis Williams II ’14, American studies, a writer, content marketer, and startup founder based in New York city. He’s also one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices of 2016, and with a story like his, it’s not hard to see why…

denniswilliamsName: Dennis Williams II
Grad Year: 2014
Major: American Studies
Job Title: Content Manager at Augment

You were named one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices of 2016 for sharing your story of how you went from homelessness to, as you put it, working with Madison Square Garden in your backyard. What inspired you to tell your story, and what kind of reactions have you received since publishing it to LinkedIn? I definitely wanted to [tell] all the students who come from underprivileged circumstances, or those who don’t have the opportunity, that there’s information out there that they can go get and really build into their portfolio, into their resume, to make them better candidates and change their career path. It was a tough decision at first, but I realized that there were others who had been in similar situations…[who] could take some kind of direction from my story and implement it into their everyday lives, to hopefully get around the obstacles facing them and plaguing them. [The] reception I got was great. I believe it did [25,000 to 30,000] views on LinkedIn, but even outside of that, [I had so many conversations with people who told me] “You’re strong for sharing your story,” [and talked] about their own […] narratives. It definitely started a lot of conversations, both in Maryland and out here [in New York]. It’s introduced me […] to a lot of people I wouldn’t have met before. LinkedIn kind of pushed me to write that story. I [spoke] to them in private about my background and how I wanted to touch a certain audience, and they were like, “Yeah, you should really write that,” and I was like, “Yeah, okay, that’s an interesting idea, but I don’t really think I’m open to being that open,” you know? They explained all the positives that could come from it, and they said they’d help me craft it anyway. So yeah, [LinkedIn was] definitely a catalyst behind this story.

How did it feel to be recognized? It felt great! It was a lot of hard work. I started writing for Funny or Die in 2013, while I was interning [there], […] and I’ve been trying to break my way in for a little while. It feels good to be recognized for holding a different point of view. The thought leadership content that I’m putting out…really does depict me and my professional values, so it felt good to put good, organic, original content out there and get recognized for it. I definitely didn’t expect it by the end of the year, either.

You now work as a content marketing director for Augment. Could you tell us a bit more about what you do in that role, and what the company does? Augment…[helps] businesses use augmented reality to better sell their products. We have clients like Coca-Cola, L’Oreal, Boeing, a lot of different [companies] that use augmented reality to help their customers see the products before they want to buy them. So I manage the content marketing department, [and] what this entails is creating content […] both on the branding side, and then to drive business as well. [It’s for] inbound leads to bring in those prospects that eventually turn into clients. Augment’s based in Paris, but we have an Orlando office and a New York office, and I work out of the New York office. So I do this both domestically and internationally. [I also run a startup called Bando, which is] a mobile platform for urban news. [It’s] growing at a rate of 20 percent month-to-month, and we support all news that pertains to the urban culture. It’s everything from video to written copy, articles, things like that, and we really want to grow an audience. [It’s] positive news-sharing for those that want to digest this on a day-to-day basis. [It reflects] the culture that I come from, and I wanted to build something that my background and those that I know can resonate with.

What is your favorite thing about the work you do? I think it’s seeing all the new technology before anyone else knows about it! There’s so much that I see on a daily basis that people may not find out [about] for one to two years, and I’ve seen it happen, whether it be artificial intelligence, robots, augmented reality, [or] virtual reality. [… ]I’m also a [content] fellow at Oculus in San Francisco…so seeing all of these emerging technologies before anyone really knows about them is definitely the coolest thing about my job.

Is there any particular aspect of your UMBC experience – a class, a professor, an internship – that’s affected your career path? I would have to say Kimberly Moffitt…she [really helped] me stay on course and manage all of the different aspects I had to deal with, both as a student and as an individual at UMBC. [All] of her direction throughout that last year and a half was a huge help to me. And even on the personal side, [she helped] me stay focused on school and on my larger professional goals, and keeping the endgame in sight. […] Just overall, the different administrations at UMBC [offer] a high level of education, encouraging you to think at a higher level [and] to push forward in that aspect[.] I think they were all an aid to helping any student be successful, so it was a huge help.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give an incoming UMBC student? That’s a good question. I would say “don’t ever limit yourself.” It may sound cliche, but in today’s age there’s an abundance of information, and you have access [to it], whether it’s through your computer or through your networks, your friends, sitting down with your professors. I was in a theater class for two years, and I would [talk to my professor] about screenwriting and developing on the theater stage. Never limit yourself, both mentally and in action. Going to get that information through those different portals is important, because there’s so many more opportunities out here that aren’t directly in front of you and aren’t explicit. I just want people to know that thinking outside of the bubble, and thinking outside of the box, can really open some doors for you.

Send us your story in a class note by Wednesday, March 1, to have it featured in the next issue of UMBC Magazine!

Career Q&A: Shalonda Holt ’07, biological sciences

Every once in a while, we’ll chat with an alum about what they do and how they got there. Today, we’re catching up with Shalonda Holt ’07, biological sciences, a biology teacher at Centennial High School and the Howard County Teacher of the Year for 2016. She tells us more about her innovative teaching methods and how she decided to enter the education profession below.


You are known for incorporating a flipped classroom model into your teaching. For those who are unfamiliar, what does a flipped classroom look like, and how does a typical lesson work? [In a flipped classroom, students] watch online lectures at home once or twice a week. The videos are five to fifteen minutes long. At school, the class is more student-centered. Students work with their peers to apply the content they learned at home. [In a typical class, students] will have a drill question to answer. During this time, I am collecting and checking the students’ notes from the previous night. Next, we will go over the drill. Since there is no lecture the rest of the class may be a lab, project, discussion, [et cetera]. It just really depends on the day.

How did you decide you wanted to teach?  I loved playing “school” when I was a little girl. During my sophomore year at UMBC, I decided that teaching was truly my passion.

How did it feel to be recognized as Howard County Teacher of the Year, and what’s the next step?  I was extremely honored because this was based on the recommendation of my colleagues and students. I just felt incredible knowing that I am able to have an impact on people. The next step is to apply for Maryland Teacher of the Year.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give an incoming UMBC student? Follow YOUR passion. I knew I had a passion for biology but I felt that everyone wanted me to become a doctor. I quickly realize that was not my dream but that teaching was. As my grandmother always would tell me, you want to find a career that you want, not one that you are forced to have.

Tell us where you are today on Retriever Stories!


Career Q&A: Stephen Ho ’14 on his role at Hungry Harvest

Every so often, we chat with a young alum about what they do and how they got there. Today, we’re talking with Stephen Ho ’14, business technology administration. Stephen, who played for UMBC’s Final Four soccer team as a student here, is now director of logistics and customer service at Hungry Harvest, a startup that recovers “ugly” produce from grocery stores and delivers it to subscribers weekly, donating food to the hungry for every box sold. Hungry Harvest gained national recognition after being featured on ABC’s Shark Tank earlier this year, and the company is now looking to expand from the Baltimore-Washington area into other locations on the East Coast.

stephenhoName: Stephen Ho

Job Title/Employer: Director of Logistics and Customer Service at Hungry Harvest, LLC

Major/Minor: Business Technology Administration

Grad Year: 2014

Describe your path to Hungry Harvest. How did you end up working there? After graduating from UMBC, I was not exactly sure what I wanted to do [besides] play soccer. Once that road had closed, I had a friend give me an opportunity at Hungry Harvest. I was not really sure what I was in for but enjoy working each day.

Talk me through a typical day at a startup like Hungry Harvest. A typical day at Hungry Harvest includes early mornings and late nights. We work at the Maryland Center of Entrepreneurship and are in the office from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on a daily basis and even later at times. While the workload is a lot, it is very necessary to keep growing the startup. With that being said, we have a very fun work environment and we enjoy working at the office with our small group of employees.

Your company was recently featured on Shark Tank. How has that changed things for your business? Since Shark Tank aired, we have doubled our deliveries and have hundreds of people on the waitlist from all over the country and world. We recently just expanded to Philadelphia as well.

How has your UMBC experience affected your career path? Which professors or classes stood out? While attending UMBC I had no idea I would end up in this position or role but nothing can take away from the experience and memories I had [here]. Playing soccer there is something I will never forget and I could say that my coaches and all my teachers stood out.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give an incoming UMBC student? Knowing what I know now, I would tell incoming UMBC students to take advantage of every day that they have there and to actually stay on campus on weekends. College will fly by and you’ll miss it once it’s all done with.

Tell us what you’ve been up to in a class note!


Career Q&A: Lauren Bucca ’13, English

Every so often, we’ll chat with an alum about what they do and how they got there. Today we catch up with Lauren Bucca ’13, English, who, after an internship in the Medieval Manuscripts Library at the Walters Art Museum and graduate studies at the University of Durham, now works for the Rowman & Littlefield publishing company.

Name: Lauren Bucca
Job Title: Publicity Assistant, Rowman & Littlefield
Major/Minor: English, double minor in History and Medieval and Early Modern Studies
Grad Year: 2013

FB_IMG_1444088617770What led you down the path to publishing?

The world of publishing is a kind of haven for someone with deep literary inclinations. I have always been interested in book publishing, having been intrigued by the way a manuscript becomes a finished product. But I didn’t think I could get into publishing, since I had always heard that it was competitive and had never before interned with a publishing company. I applied to many publishing jobs before I obtained an interview with Rowman & Littlefield, and was fortunate to get the job; I believe that my library and archival experience made me a suitable candidate. Academic publishing seems like the perfect fit for me since it combines my love of learning, writing, and communicating with diverse people.

You went to graduate school at the University of Durham in England. What was that like?

I loved my experience in Durham, England, mostly because it was the ideal location for studying medieval history and literature. Durham is situated on a peninsula, and is an idyllic medieval city with a castle, cathedral, and winding cobblestone streets. The university also provided a unique experience, since it is separated into different colleges which were essentially hubs for social events (including Harry Potter-like dinners, complete with black robe attire). I even joined the graduate rowing team of my college as a coxswain, which was a challenging experience as I attempted to steer the boat away from Durham’s many bridges.  I greatly enjoyed living with people from my college, as most of them were from other countries[,] which gave me the opportunity to learn about other cultures and to make life-long friends. In my Masters course, I had the chance to study medieval manuscripts, catalogue 14th century charters, and discover the historic locations in and surrounding Durham. Overall, the academic community and beautiful city (especially the cathedral) provided for an exceptional opportunity to immerse myself in researching the early medieval period.

What stands out to you the most about your UMBC experience?

The academic support from my English and Honors College professors stands out the most to me, besides making wonderful friends and spending three years working at the library. At UMBC, I was never “spoon-fed” information, but [rather] encouraged to ask questions and find the answers through my own research. I was able to do an independent honors study with Dr. Gail Orgelfinger from the English department (she’s amazing), which later turned into [an undergraduate research] project in the UK. This project, supported also by funding and advice from Dr. Simon Stacey at the Honors College, helped me develop into a scholar and gave me the confidence to continue my research at the masters’ level.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give an incoming UMBC student?

Besides having fun and not stressing yourself out, this is a great time to take advantage of your professors’ knowledge and
advice. Try to see how your current academic plan can transfer to a job. Also, make sure you have at least one internship, because it is way easier to get a job after graduation if you have some work experience. I am grateful that my advisor, Dr. Kathryn McKinley, provided me with an opportunity to intern at the Walters Art Museum. I worked with the manuscripts and rare books, and loved it so much that I continued volunteering there after graduation. Though my career isn’t in an archive or a museum, the skills I obtained there transferred well into my current job.

Career Q&A: Nilusha Jayasinghe ’13, biological sciences and Spanish, M.S. ’15 applied molecular biology

Every so often, we’ll chat with an alum about what they do and how they got there. Today we’re talking with Nilusha Jayasinghe ’13, biological sciences and Spanish, M.S. ’15 applied molecular biology, about her work as a researcher at the National Institutes of Health.

image1Name: Nilusha Jayasinghe
Job Title: Intramural Research Fellow, National Institutes of Health
Major/Minor: Undergrad: Biology and Spanish, Grad: Applied Molecular Biology (AMB)
Grad Year: Undergrad: 2013, Grad: 2015

Tell me a little about the research project you’re involved in at NIH. I study the genetics of blood and lymph vessel development and differentiation during vertebrate development using the model organism zebrafish. We look at the genes that are critical in different signaling pathways that dictate proper vessel development, which can also play a role in cancer metastasis since tumors need these vessels to survive. Zebrafish develop rapidly and produce transparent embryos which are fertilized outside of the mother, which enable us to use them to study our topic very easily. Most importantly, development in zebrafish is very similar to human development, so we can translate our findings into the genetics behind circulatory defects in humans which is really interesting and useful!

How did your UMBC experience bring you to your current position in research? I was a pre-med student back then at UMBC (currently I’ll call myself pre-health, since I am also considering [physician assistant] school as well), and one of the things that make a competitive applicant is research experience. I also have skills and interests in the biological sciences which were especially refined during my master’s program, so I thought that I’ll take a few years post-graduation to do more research. I ended up at the NIH because of their amazing research facilities and track record, as well as their extensive pre-health community and resources.

Is there a particular class or professor at UMBC that inspired you? Yes! I’ll have to say that Dr. Richard Wolf (now retired, taught prokaryotic molecular biology and directed the AMB program) and Ms. Julia Wolf (taught the lab part of the AMB program) both inspired and challenged me a lot during my master’s program. They were excellent instructors and mentors, teaching with both care and the necessary challenge[s] to push their students to their [maximum] potential.

Having had the experience, what piece of advice would you give a new UMBC student? There is so much that I learned at UMBC and so many things I can say, but I think one of the most valuable things is to realize the amount of resources and great minds there are [here]. With that said, in order to make the best of your experience I think that getting involved and networking is so important! Tell people about what interests you and what you hope to do short-term or long-term, and I guarantee that they will want to help you! You never know what others may know about or can do for you that might open the doors for some of the best experiences of your life. This happened to me many times at UMBC [,and these experiences] helped me land graduate assistantships, learn about the AMB program, and finally get a spot in the NIH, for some examples. So, put yourself out there and let yourself be known!

Career Q&A: Mark Jarzynski ’11, Computer Science

Every so often, we’ll chat with an alum about what they do and how they got there. Today we’re talking with Mark Jarzynski ’11, computer science, about his work as Technical Director of Software Development here at UMBC’s Imaging Research Center (IRC).

SONY DSCName: Mark Jarzynski
Job Title: Technical Director of Software Development
Major/Minor: Computer Science/Game Development
Grad year: 2011

Q: What drew you to UMBC for your studies?

When I was in high school, I was really interested in making video games. I had heard that UMBC had a game development track within Computer Science so I went for it.

Q: You now work at the university in the IRC. Could you tell us how you got the position and talk a bit about what you do there?

I had a job as a student working for CSEE. I maintained their servers and I developed their website. When I graduated in 2011, the IRC was looking for someone with my skillset, and my boss, Geoff, encouraged me to apply.
At the IRC I maintain all of our desktops and servers,  I’m the lead programmer on our projects, and I am currently supervising six programming students. I can be working on 4-5 projects at any given time.

Q: Is there a particular professor or class at UMBC that really inspired you?

I had quite a few professors that inspired me throughout my time as a student such as Don Miner and Dr. Olano. I think the class that inspired me the most was CMSC 313, “Computer Organization and Assembly Language,” with Dennis Frey. One of my favorite projects for that class was a “bomb” program. When the program was run, it would ‘explode’ by sending an email to Professor Frey. We had to disassemble the program and use the debugger GDC to disarm the bomb so when the program ran it didn’t explode and send an email to Professor Frey saying that we’ve failed.

Q: How goes the video game design? Are you working on anything right now?

I have a license for Unity Pro and Unreal Engine. I dabble with them every once in while on my free time.

Q: What games have had the most lasting impact on you?

Warcraft III. I started playing this game back in high school and it is what got me really interested in game development. It had a map editor which I would spend an enormous amount of time creating custom maps in.

Q: What advice would you give to students considering UMBC?

Follow your passion wherever it takes you.

Career Q&A: Robert Bennett ’12, Ancient Studies and History

Every so often, we’ll chat with an alum about what they do and how they got there. Today we’re talking with Robert Bennett ‘12, Ancient Studies and History, about his work as the executive director of the William Brinton 1704 House and Historic site. 

Name: Robert Bennettrobert bennett
Job Title: Executive director of the William Brinton 1704 House and Historic site
Major(s): Ancient Studies and History
Grad year: 2012

Q: What drew you to UMBC for your studies?

I was originally drawn to UMBC’s Ancient Studies department because of its well-rounded curricula, which focused not only on Classical languages, but also ancient history and archaeology. However, UMBC was approximately 70 miles from my home, and, being a non-traditional student, living on campus was not an option for me. Eventually, through the efforts of a professor at my local community college, I was offered a full scholarship by President Hrabowski that made my long daily commute financially feasible. It was an absolutely life-changing moment.

Q: Can you recall any professors or advisors at UMBC who inspired you?

It would be near impossible to list all of the faculty who inspired me, so I’ll mention only a few. President Hrabowski always made time for me, and would speak to me whenever and wherever he saw me. Ancient Studies faculty such as Dr. Marilyn Goldberg and Dr. Jay Freyman were instrumental in advising me as well as helping me through difficult times. In the History department, Dr. James Grubb and Dr. Joseph Tatarewicz encouraged me to get a second BA in History. Dr. Simon Stacey, Dr. Anna Shields, and Dr. Ellen Spitz provided direction and guidance.

Q: Can you explain a little about the research paper you had to write for your history class, and how it opened the doors to your career path?

I was instructed to write a paper concerning some historical event in my family’s history. Unfortunately, I knew next to nothing about my family, and what I did know only went one or two generations deep. My girlfriend (now wife) suggested using my newly acquired historical skills to research my father’s line and, when I did, I found that I was descended from some of the first English settlers of Pennsylvania! I wrote about how this discovery changed my perspective concerning what it meant to have deep roots and the connection to a place. Through my research, I discovered that the descendants of one of the branches of this family owned and operated an historic house museum in West Chester, PA. I visited the house, told the Executive Director about my paper, and she asked to read it. She was retiring soon, so she sent the paper to the board of directors. The board asked to meet me, and, upon the former director’s retirement, offered me the job!

Q: What has been your greatest achievement in your career as Executive Director? Your greatest challenge?

My greatest achievement thus far has been to increase visitation and admissions by 75%. An enlarged social media presence, as well as good word of mouth, have contributed to this increase; but I believe it is really due to the personal connection to the house I possess and am able to convey to my visitors. My greatest challenge has been to keep the museum relevant to succeeding generations whose values are shaped by a changing historical landscape.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your profession?

To put it simply: making history come to life.

Q: Is there any advice you’d like to give to students at UMBC?

When I was offered my scholarship to UMBC, I was asked by family and friends what I would study. After telling them that I would major in Ancient Studies and History, most asked why I would not study something with more earning potential and employability. The answer I gave is the advice I would give: One must do what one loves.