University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign senior in computer engineering and City Scholars participant

Despite the common narrative that most of the state’s top tech talent leaves Illinois, ISTC analysis through the Illinois Innovation Index shows the Illinois’ recent computer science graduates are 4.5 times more likely to work in Chicago than any other city (Champaign-Urbana also ranks fourth). Though this news is encouraging, more can be done to ensure that Illinois’ most sought-after tech graduates are exposed to career opportunities in the state.

Launched in 2018, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s City Scholars program is creating a retention link between the state’s top ranked computer science and engineering programs, and the growing tech scene in Chicago. City Scholars offers current undergraduate computer science, computer engineering, and electrical engineering students the chance to live and work in Chicago while maintaining a competitive course load taught locally at the Discovery Partners Institute. Working 20 hours each week for one of City Scholar’s 19 company partners, students gain valuable experience while creating professional connections that increase their likelihood of post-graduation employment in Chicago.

In this issue of Catalyst, we chat with Smit Patel, senior in computer engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and City Scholars participant. We discuss Smit’s path to the City Scholars program, his experience living and working in Chicago, and his plans for the future.


Tell us about your background, where did you grow up and how did you decide to pursue computer science at the University of Illinois?

I was born and raised in Surat, India. When I was 11 years old I moved to Wheeling, IL. This is a suburb of Chicago, so I have lived about half my life in the United States. All of high school I thought I wanted to be a medical student and become a pediatrician, but during senior year I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue to go about this route so I applied to colleges as undecided. I was able to get into University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a student in the Division of General Studies. I took an intro to programming class that I found interesting, so I decided to take an intro to electronics course to see the other side of things. After finding many of my interests matched these classes, I transferred into computer engineering, which deals with how software interacts with hardware and covers many core concepts shared by both electrical engineering and computer science.


How did you find out about the University of Illinois’ City Scholars program? What made you want to participate in the program?

My roommate was actually the one who recommended City Scholars. He was considering study abroad, but wasn’t sure where to go. The program gives you the feeling of studying abroad, but in Chicago. We both applied because the application only took few clicks to complete, and to our surprise, we both got into the program. Getting to explore the city and work while taking classes that apply towards graduation was very appealing.


As a Junior, you interned at JP Morgan in the spring and summer of 2018. In addition, you were selected to intern with Trustwave as a senior this spring. Tell us about your experience working for these companies in Chicago. What made you want to participate in the program a second time this spring?

As a student who had little to no information about this field, I learned based on what I was exposed to. That being said, there is a big misconception where most people think that if you want to work on cutting edge technology, it is a must to go to Silicon Valley. That isn’t the case. Through City Scholars the students participating get to see the tech scene in Chicago and it really broadened our idea of what goes on here. For example, we went to Wrigley Field for a game and we saw some of the challenges they were trying to solve, such as making sure that each and every person gets access to the WiFi system. This would definitely be a problem for such a big stadium! I came back to this program again because all the classes I needed to take to graduate, even as a second semester senior, were offered. I loved living in the city, and who doesn’t like to make money while gaining experiences that helps build a career.


In addition to connecting student with internships, City Scholars allows participating students to take courses toward their major while living in Chicago. How has this helped you gain real-world experience while working toward your degree?

The program offers classes that are interesting to students and applicable in the workplace. I took a database class during my first cohort. At the same time, at JP Morgan I was working on a backend project that involved a database. I was able to directly apply what I learned in the course at work. I was the only one from my team of interns who was taking this class so when they needed help involving the database, I was the guy to go to. This also helped me understand the concepts better in class.

City Scholars participants tour Cars.com


The City Scholars program works to show students the opportunities in tech that are available in Chicago. What have you learned about Chicago’s tech ecosystem that you didn’t know prior to participating in City Scholars? Has working in Chicago changed your perception of the city as a tech hub?

As someone growing up in the Chicago suburbs, I really liked the city, but wasn’t sure what the tech industry was like. I got to college and then started diving deep into the tech side of things with an exposure to the idea of going to Silicon Valley. I really did not look into Chicago as somewhere to go to look for a high tech job, but this program definitely changed my perception. We go on weekly tours to companies within the city or have a company representative visit us at the Discovery Partners Institute. It really lets you get the feel for what’s happening here. Not only do we get to see the company, but we get to meet high-level executives or CEO/CTOs of hot startups in Chicago. The program also encourages us to go to networking events taking place, so building connections is really easy. Many of the students ended up getting summer internships through these networking events. Opportunity is there, it really depends on you to put in the effort and take advantage of it.


What are your plans after graduation? If you chose to enter the workforce, do you plan to seek employment in Chicago?

After graduation I am thinking of taking a little break from work and traveling, possibly to Japan. After that, I am actually going back to work at JP Morgan. I loved the internship with them, so when they offered me a full-time position, I really couldn’t say no.