Michael Vandi made a promise to himself that one day he would build a better computer.
He was 6 years and his aunt had given him the best gift he could have imagined—a toy laptop.
"It was an awkward looking laptop with a black-and-white display. I would spend hours trying to figure out how to play the games right," Michael said. "I used to watch movies about computers and computer scientists, so I would randomly press the keys pretending to write code as I had seen in the movies."
But then the laptop crashed, a moment that would shape the rest of his life.
In high school, Michael learned how to code and built his first app. When it was time for him to go to college, he decided to pursue computer science.
Now at the University of Baltimore, Michael, a B.S. in Applied Information Technology student focusing on applications development and programming, is doing more than he even could have imagined at 6 years old. By his third semester, he was able to travel to his native Sierra Leone for a research project on e-learning there and he had joined a team of UB students selected to compete against other college students in a nationwide competition called NASA S.U.I.T.S., which welcomes students to design technology for NASA astronauts.
"I've only been here a little over a year, but the amount of progress I have experienced is too much to take in," Michael says. "I am really grateful for the opportunity of studying at the University."
His research on e-learning in Sierra Leone was possible due to help from his professor Giovanni Vincenti and a Turner Research and Travel Award from UB. Vincenti served as Michael's adviser on the project and the award covered most of the costs of a trip to Sierra Leone to conduct his research.
In spring 2020, Michael's research earned him the top prize in UB's Inspired Discoveries competition, a joint effort by UB's Robert L. Bogomolny Library and Helen P. Denit Honors Program to showcase and award student research and innovation.
The research opportunity also helped him discover a passion for learning management systems and data analysis.
"It's not so much about the classes because you can learn coding anywhere. It's the interactions and the opportunities that you get from UB. I do have very close relationships with my professors and they are like mentors to me," Michael says. "All those opportunities are helping to build a foundation for a future career."
When he first came to UB, Michael was a week late to start classes, but found the community welcoming and accommodating.
He ended up receiving his visa earlier than expected, and his family scrambled to get him on a plane to America so he could start college all the sooner. Michael had been accepted, but hadn't registered for classes, not thinking he'd be able to attend fall semester.
Michael got his visa on a Friday, caught a flight on Saturday, and walked into UB's International Admission office on Tuesday (that Monday was Labor Day, so the campus was closed).
"We went to the international service office and they were like we didn't know you were coming," Michael recalls. "Dr. Eleftherios [Michael, associate director for international admission and services] told us I'll to go talk to the dean and the dean was like oh, that's fine with me. So Dr. Eleftherios came down to me and he was like, 'Michael, I've got good news for you. We're not sending you home today. We've approved that you can register for classes.' So I immediately went to my academic adviser to register for classes and I started classes the same day."