Computer Science students set out to Change the World

Simeon Videnov and Gabriel Ochoa are setting out to make volunteering more accessible to the masses. And true to their natures, these computer science and mathematics students are trying to do it through designing a piece of software they’re calling Volunhere.

“Basically, it’s a way to connect students with opportunities to volunteer,” says Videnov, a sophomore and the current president of ACM (Association for Computing Machinery)—Projects Division. He and Ochoa, a senior and president emeritus of ACM—Projects Division, originally came up with the idea while considering entries for a weekend hackathon.

Henry Aery '15, one of 5 alumni who created 
the Change the World scholarship, stands 
with senior Gabriel Ochoa and sophomore 
Simeon Videnov, who won the scholarship 
this year.
“When we were in high school, we had to do [volunteer] hours for National Honor Society, for various clubs and organizations and also for applications to college,” explains Videnov. “The problem that I had was that a lot of the smaller places where I live, in Syracuse, don’t have a web presence or don’t have the knowledge or resources to advertise [their volunteer opportunities]. It’s a high barrier for entry for a lot of kids, so people kind of scramble for hours and they do something they don’t care about—and that’s bad for everyone.”

Videnov and Ochoa imagine a program that collects information from organizations that are searching for volunteers as well as students and others who are looking for volunteer opportunities, then matches them up, making it easier for both parties to find each other.

The pair ended up not attending the hackathon, but when they heard about a scholarship opportunity that was being offered by a group of Binghamton University alumni, the idea was resurrected. “I figured, this is something that I feel could extend past a weekend project and could have continuity,” says Videnov. And so he and Ochoa submitted the idea and hoped for the best.

The scholarship they applied for is called the Change the World scholarship, a new opportunity offered by a group of five alumni that aims to support current students in pursuing a dream project that has some positive impact on the world—locally, nationally or abroad. The scholarship includes a financial incentive ($1,000 in project funding), as well as ongoing mentorship by five individuals who have real-world experience in various professional fields.

“If you look at the top universities in the country—MIT, Harvard, places like that—there is so much infrastructure and culture around getting students to really stretch themselves and do “out there” projects,” says Henry Aery ’15, one of the alumni backing the scholarship. “We (the group of alumni) have all been exposed to professors and faculty members who really inspired us to stretch ourselves and try something that was really out there, and so our goal with this scholarship is to encourage students to really think beyond their limits and push their potential. And while they’re doing that, we’ll provide them the coaching and mentoring to help them be successful.”

For Videnov, the mentorship is the most exciting aspect of the scholarship. “The beautiful thing about software is that it’s not that expensive, so the money will actually go a very long way. We could probably last two to three years just on this grant. More important than the money is the mentorship—having access to five people who have been down this road, have an interest in this type of thing and are very responsive to answering questions, to guiding us. And that’s not something you can really buy, so I think that’s the biggest value.”

Aery and the other alumni who created the scholarship (Aaron Cohn '11, MS '12; Alex Hantman '13; Adam Ibrahim '14 and Craig Broccoli '10, MBA '11) hail from various professional fields, including engineering, accounting, business and economics, and are able to guide Videnov and Ochoa as they think through the project and prepare to make it happen. “The funding is mostly just to see their project come to fruition how they imagine it to be,” says Aery. “I think there’s a huge demand for alumni to come in and coach these students and really help them excel. We see it as really valuable to the students themselves, and then there’s also the impact that these students can have on the world. It’s important that they get the coaching and inspiration that they need to make an impact.”

Volunhere, the software Videnov and Ochoa plan to create, is still in the early stages as the pair thinks through the project and how to implement their ideas most efficiently, but they are optimistic and excited about the potential, as are Aery and his fellow scholarship granters. “We would love for these guys to crush it this year and get them off and running so that they can keep the project going. And we would love if more alumni got involved and there were more students we could work with in the future. We gave almost no time for projects when we asked for applications—just about two weeks—and we still got 28 applications. We knew as alumni that there are things going on on campus, there are students doing really tremendous things—we just don’t always know about it.”

Now, thanks to the Change the World scholarship, hopefully we'll all hear more about the wonderful things Binghamton University students are accomplishing. 


2015 Welcome Week Service Project

Incoming freshman Elsie Dowuona-Hammond arrived on campus a few days early this fall. While her future classmates were spending their last few days of summer vacation saying goodbye to friends and family and completing last minute back-to-school shopping, Dowuona-Hammond and 120 other new students were busy connecting to the greater Binghamton community and making a difference for local residents as participants in Binghamton University’s second annual Welcome Week Service Project.

Dowuona-Hammond and her classmates volunteered at seven sites in and around Binghamton, their service projects ranging from painting murals to preparing educational programs at museums to cleaning up and beautifying natural areas. Dowuona-Hammond’s group spent the first day with the Broome County Council of Churches’ Ramp It Up program, dismantling a wheelchair ramp at one location where it was no longer needed and rebuilding it at the home of a woman who did need it.

“The project was fun and I learned a lot about building,” says Dowuona-Hammond, “but the absolute best part was when we were introduced to the woman who we were building the ramp for, Mary. Seeing her face as she saw the ramp being built was so great. She expressed her gratitude and said that she had the luck of always encountering ‘good kids.’”

On the second day of the service project, Dowuona-Hammond and her group worked with the Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse (CHOW), where they passed out free food to community members experiencing food insecurity.

“When we announced that a lot of the food was free, people were so surprised and grateful. Unfortunately, many people have to wonder where their next meal is coming from and to hear that there is free food is such a relief. Since CHOW [distributes free food] often, I think the community feels more connected knowing that there is such support for them.

“Had it not been for [the Welcome Week Service Project], I may have only seen the ‘nice’ parts of Binghamton, but through this experience I got to see everything. Through all the people I met, both volunteers and community members, I was able to see how our service affected everybody. By experiencing this first hand, I felt as if I was a part of the community, despite only being there for a couple of days.”

Reflecting back to the first day of service building the wheelchair ramp, Dowuona-Hammond says she thinks her service was beneficial to everyone involved — the community, her fellow students and Binghamton University as an institution.

“Not only were we building a ramp, but to this woman we were the true representation of our generation. A generation that can be defined by service to the community sounds like an amazing generation to me, and I could tell it sounded great to Mary too. It felt great to be representing Binghamton University in such a positive way.”


5 Reasons to Volunteer this Summer

It gets you out of the house.

At school, you’re an independent adult out on your own—no parents looking over your shoulder, no siblings getting into your stuff. Transitioning back to the “child” role is stressful for everyone. So give yourself—and your family—a break and get out of the house for a few hours a week. Mom and Dad will be happy to hear you’re volunteering, and you’ll be happy to have some time to yourself!

It doesn’t have to be a soup kitchen. 

Soup kitchens and community meal programs are worthy recipients of your volunteer hours, but don’t be afraid to think outside of the box, too. Help a local Mom & Pop Shop improve their web presence; lead a craft or outdoor activity at a kids’ day camp; volunteer for a political campaign. The opportunities are endless, so get creative!

Beef up your resume.

So maybe you didn’t get the dream internship you were hoping for. You can still get valuable career experience through volunteering. Most small businesses or non-profit organizations will gladly accept free help, especially if it’s clear that you are passionate about what you’re doing and eager to contribute. And what better way to show future potential employers that you are proactive and a creative thinker?

Meet some new people.

Your friends from Bing aren’t around, and maybe your high school friends are busy with jobs and internships or you just haven’t kept in touch since graduation. Volunteering exposes you to new social circles, and often leads to strong friendships with likeminded people.

It’s good for you.

If the Yak game in your town is lame, your friends aren’t replying to your snaps, and you’re out of swipes on Tinder, then maybe it’s time to take a look around your community and find some ways to get involved. It’s been proven time and again that when people invest their own time, effort and resources into their community, the community blossoms, and so do all of those who live there.