Graduate Joseph Vargovich: From first computer to master’s degree, NAU engineering student leads, mentors and succeeds

Joseph Vargovich built his first computer as a freshman in high school. It was the spark that ignited his passion for computers and technology. This May, he graduates from Northern Arizona University as the Outstanding Senior in the computer science program and a member of the Honors College with a major in computer science, a minor in mathematics and a full-time graduate research assistantship to earn a master’s degree.

Vargovich on Nintendo Kart“I’ve been a nerd for as long as I can remember,” Vargovich said. “I grew up playing video games and learning about technology. It was an exciting process using early computers while growing up and following the evolution of technology.”

He grew up in Mesa, and during high school, he took two years of programming courses and participated in a mobile app development competition called the Spark App League where he collaborated with two friends to create a mobile app that promoted tourism in the city of Gilbert. His team received the Google Favorite Award for their app’s use of gamification. Vargovich said this early success encouraged him to continue programming, learning computer science and eventually enrolling in the major at NAU.

“I heard good things about the NAU computer science program and its superiority to ASU, which was the closest college to me,” he said. “I wanted a change of scenery and to expand my web of connections by moving away from home. Plus, I love hiking, so it was really a no-brainer. I was completely sold when I toured the college and was introduced to the Honors College. It seemed like a very personal and useful addition to my baseline studies.”

The Honors College opened up a wealth of opportunity and mentorship for Vargovich. A class with Melissa Schonauer, assistant professor of practice in the Honors College, was a starting point in his career at NAU. She recognized his potential and encouraged him to diversify his knowledge beyond his major.

“Her class pushed me to seek out my first research position as a machine learning research assistant with Toby Hocking,” he said. “I’ve worked as an undergraduate researcher since I was a sophomore. Applied research experience has been vital to my optimal development as a skilled software engineer.”

Hocking is an assistant professor in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems (SICCS). His research focuses on machine learning, computational statistics, optimization algorithms, data visualization and interactive genomic data analysis. Vargovich is finishing final revisions for a research publication he contributed to throughout his time in Hocking’s lab.

Currently, he works with SICCS assistant professor Morgan Vigil-Hayes, who has helped him develop a plethora of skills he will need to continue with his career and educational plans.

In addition to guidance he received from professors, Vargovich met Barbara Youngs, academic success coordinator in the Honors College, who was pivotal to the development of his writing skills, thus enabling him to help fund his education.

Vargovich in snow“I was forced to go to the writing center because my writing was just not up to snuff!”

He worked with Youngs to improve his writing and revise multiple scholarship essays and research grant applications, which helped fund several grants and awards to continue his education and research aspirations.

During his time at NAU, he also served as chairman for NAU’s branch of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a professional organization focused on educating members about the latest developments in electrical engineering and computer science.

Through his work with IEEE, he was able to bring more engineering topics to the Honors College. His responsibilities included holding workshops, research events and professional panels. One such event was a color-sorting robot hackathon, which brought students together to learn basic Arduino robotics programming. He also offered guidance on a variety of programming topics such as robotics and operating systems, but in his role, he has enjoyed mentoring other students the most.

“I have mentored students from when I led IEEE as well as within my own peer groups,” he said. “I really aim to encourage younger students to persevere through their hardest classes while helping out in any way I can. I am always happy to help my peers who put in the effort. The most important thing to success in college is to go beyond your classes. You must expand your knowledge through extracurriculars and leadership positions.”

All of his mentorship experiences, whether being the mentee or mentor, paid off for his own personal growth, but he also was recognized by SICCS. He received the Outstanding Senior award in the computer science program. The award recognizes his performance for achieving more than 100 percent in one of his classes, his willingness to help others and assume leadership roles and the research he has completed throughout his NAU career.

As he approaches graduation, he is on track to start his master’s degree in the computer science program at NAU and will begin a full-time graduate research assistantship with assistant professor of SICCS Marco Gerosa.

“I decided to continue at NAU. I don’t want to be shut out of a leadership role just because I don’t have a master’s, and I am still interested in taking several courses here at NAU, so the choice was easy. I am extremely optimistic about the future and am excited to be working with Dr. Gerosa in grad school.”

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Jacklyn Walling | NAU Communications