North Texas Daily

Hacking It

Hacking It

August 15
10:49 2013

International student designs app at recent Dallas hack-a-thon

By JP Lugo/Staff Writer

The power of mobile technology today is remarkable, especially how far it has come in the past 10 years.

For one UNT student, this growth led to a big opportunity to put his engineering and electronics skills to the test. Omar Costilla-Reyes, an electrical engineering graduate student, took advantage of the opportunity he saw and participated in a hackathon sponsored by the Dallas Engaged Professionals organization.

“I was on my phone at night on an app called Google Now, and it showed up in my phone. It was showing events for tomorrow and I thought ‘let’s do it,’” Costilla-Reyes said. “I’m familiar with this kind of thing, like software competitions. It was not something completely new. I thought this would be a good opportunity for a new test.”

The purpose of the event was to engage group skills as well as marketing, engineering, presentation and other skills needed to make an app succeed, and showcase what the groups were able to come up with in one day. From 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on June 29, the participating groups created a foundation for an app that would improve overall lifestyle in Dallas.

Costilla-Reyes and his group presented an app they called “Walk This Way,” which is intended to help users develop a habit of walking as a form of transportation in downtown Dallas.

Mark Lea, a member of Reyes’ group, said Costilla-Reyes was a big contribution to the team and they’ll need even more help from him when it comes to the stage of bringing the app to life.

“He was really friendly and also passionate about the project, eager to get something done and make it productive overall. During the session, we’re there for 10 hours, however, he stayed positive,” Lea said. “Since the meeting there have been three of us talking about the next Hackathon, involving the coding. They want to do one every quarter. Next one would be more actually writing the program. That’s one place where Omar is going to take a leadership role.”

Costilla-Reyes has been interested in electronics since he was a child, taking apart toys and gadgets to figure out how they work.

Raised in Toluca, Mexico and receiving his undergraduate degree there before pursuing his master’s degree at UNT, Costilla-Reyes couldn’t decline the opportunity of studying abroad and furthering his education in the field he loves. What started as an internship opportunity has turned into a graduate degree opportunity funded by a scholarship.

“There are a lot of international students every semester applying to education in the U.S., since the U.S. excels in quality of education,” Costilla-Reyes said. “I really feel that I made the right choice to come to UNT, since I’m receiving the right education that will make me succeed once I graduate.”

He feels he has a better perspective of Americans, and living in a diverse area has gotten him acquainted with other people from other parts of the world.

“The transition at the beginning was difficult, because I needed to adapt to a whole new culture, but once I adapted to the changes I started to enjoy this amazing experience of living abroad,” Costilla-Reyes said.  “For example, here at UNT I have met professionals from very diverse fields of study, and for me, it is very interesting to talk to them and get to know their opinions and how they perceive the world. One of the biggest differences between the U.S. and Mexico is that in the U.S. you can find people from all over the world, making this country so unique in terms of cultural diversity.”

Costilla-Reyes also relies on the same technological advances he designs to Skype with his family weekly.

“I talk with my family every Sunday through Skype to see how things are going,” Reyes said. “I’m really amazed by the level of technological advancement that our society has achieved so far, since nowadays it is very easy, fast and cheap to communicate with someone thousands of miles away. Being far away is no longer a problem to stay in touch with family.”

Another area that students can find similar opportunities to the Hackathon is at the Innovation Greenhouse, a center on campus that promotes the entrepreneurial side of many different fields and majors, not just engineering or business. Costilla-Reyes has made a good connection with Dr. Nancy Hong, the head of the Innovation Greenhouse, who is not at all surprised by Reyes’ success and also believes he has made the adjustment to the American lifestyle very well.

“It takes awhile, he still needs a little adaptation to a different country but I think he’s doing extremely well. He’s very well educated in his country and he just didn’t have so much practice in English and that makes him tongue shy. He’s accustomed to small town areas,” Hong said. “I think his commitment is so impressive, he takes every opportunity he can to learn more. It’s very intimidating at Hackathon. The room is full of technologists. And here you are, from another country and still pretty shy, and to place second? That is amazing.”

Hong said that this is just one example of Costilla-Reyes looking beyond the classroom to gain knowledge and honing his skills, and that his dedication is what makes him a top notch student.

“We are very proud of him. He worked really hard to get where he got and I’m sure he’ll do even better next time,” Hong said. “He is very motivated and proactive. He goes and looks for projects outside of his classroom so he can practice what learns in the class. The Hackathon was just extra work outside of his class. It’s the extra commitment that makes him stand out.”

For Costilla-Reyes, what he loves and what he’s good at become one in his pursuit of a career in electronics. Thriving off his interests is bound to lead to a steady career that he’ll always enjoy.

“Making a lot of money is not a priority in my life, I prefer to have the satisfaction to be working on whatever makes me feel fulfilled,” Costilla-Reyes said. “I must say that want to try everything. Starting from working for a big, small, indie, non-profit company to create my own business, and keep doing whatever I love more.”

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