Thursday, April 16, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Jonathan Roberts

Jonathan Roberts, Nixon & Vanderhye P.C.
We recently caught up with alumnus Jonathan Roberts at a Banneker/Key Alumni event. He was a member of Team Universal Playgrounds in the Class of 2003, and is now a patent attorney at Nixon & Vanderhye. He was gracious enough to answer some of our questions, so follow the jump for more!

Why do choose to go to the University of Maryland for undergrad, and why did you choose the Gemstone Program?

Maryland was unique in what it could offer: A close-knit interdisciplinary program that emphasized the importance of a liberal education, while providing access to a major research institution of 30,000-plus students - only a few Metro stops from DC. It was the perfect balance of big and small in an ideal location. And throw in top-notch athletics (including an ACC championship in football and a national championship in basketball while I was there), not to mention an incredibly generous scholarship, and it wasn’t even a close call. Back then, students didn’t pick a living and learning program, but I’m sure glad that Gemstone picked me.

You were a double major in Computer Science and Government & Politics. Can you talk about why you chose to combine these two majors, and if that impacted your Gemstone experience in any way?

Coming out of high school, I knew I wanted to be a Computer Science major. But I also had this fascination with politics and power and “Theories About Really Big and Important Things.” (Sorry, but I can’t say that last bit without my faux-serious voice.) Anyway, I was a Computer Science guy, but I was intellectually promiscuous -- and I figured that Tydings and the A.V. Williams were so far away from one another that I’d just have to meet different people and get a different take on how the world worked. It wasn’t all 0s and 1s on South Campus, and that was exciting! Once I took that first class, GVPT100H with Professor Elkin, I was hooked, and I added Government and Politics as a second major.

Being a Comp. Sci. and Government and Politics double major was a huge advantage when it came to doing our Gemstone team project. I was a member of the Universal Playgrounds team, and our research involved engineering tasks, reading and interpreting statutes like the Americans with Disabilities Act, conducting surveys and understanding survey data, etc. I think that having that interdisciplinary mindset helped allow me to make a positive contribution to our team because I could contribute something to each of these facets of the work.

What was your Gemstone project about? How many students were on your team and who was your faculty mentor? Did anyone on your team continue the research after you finished your thesis?

There was a big push to design and update playgrounds to accommodate children with disabilities when we were undergrads. Unfortunately, we found that what this oftentimes meant was that separate play areas for children with and without disabilities were being created. Now “playing” is about having fun in an instinctive and voluntary and spontaneous way. And if you think about what’s underneath that, if you think about what “play” is all about -- communication and expression that combines thought and action that helps kids develop physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially -- then there’s actually a lot more at stake.

So we set out to design a more ideal playground, a truly “Universal Playground,” that was carefully set up to facilitate integrated play. We wanted to go beyond mere accessibility and actually create, through clever design, opportunities for kids to play in a more inclusive environment -- a place where everyone could have fun and learn from each other, and grow physically, mentally, and emotionally in a socially encouraging context.

We had 10 people on our team (myself included), and our mentor was Glenn Rahmoeller. We provided a blueprint for a new playground, and I think at that time we even had some traction with College Park to actually build the thing. Unfortunately, the project went dormant after we all graduated -- but I’d love for a new Gemstone team to pick up where we left off. There have been so many advancements in the materials and civil engineering realms, and there’s really exciting research that’s at the intersection of education, sociology, and psychology. Seems like the time is right to get this going again!

What is your favorite memory about the Gemstone Program?

The relationships I formed in the Gemstone Program were special. Some of my fondest memories involve playing ping-pong on our warped table in the lounge on the sixth floor of Ellicott at 3 or 4 in the morning. And I’ll never forget all of the ways we snuck into Cole Field House to make sure we could sit in the front row of the student section at the basketball games. But right now, my favorite memory might be when I took my then-girlfriend Katie to a concert at the Chapel. Katie’s roommate Anita clued me in that Katie was getting all dressed up, having borrowed various items of clothing from two of her friends on the hall. I in turn rushed to borrow a red tie from my roommate Chad and put it on with a wrinkled white dress shirt under an old super-scratchy wool sweater. My other roommate Robert took a picture with a disposable camera, while our friends Russell, Jason, and Brien cheered us on as we disappeared down the elevator shaft. It was a sweet moment. It seemed like the entire Gemstone program conspired to help us have a nice first date. And 12 years later, it seemed like the entire Gemstone program conspired to help us have a nice wedding.

How has your experience at UMD and in Gemstone influenced your career or workplace skills/experiences after graduation?

I’m convinced that I wouldn’t be where I am, and that I couldn’t do what I do, without UMD and the Gemstone Program. I’m a patent attorney, which means that I get to use all of the intellectual tools I acquired while at Maryland every day I work. I use my computer science background to understand complex inventions and help clients create and protect intellectual property. I use my government and politics background to argue like an attorney, assess the contours of the laws and regulations, and understand what government agencies like the USPTO do and why they do it. The classes I took from the business school help me understand and discuss risk with clients. And there’s nothing like the Gemstone Program when it comes to learning about how to work with an interdisciplinary team on a large, complex, high-stakes project.

What is one piece of advice that you would give to current Gemstone students, terms of the program, undergraduate life, or post-graduation plans?

It’s going to be ok. All of that stuff is going to be ok. You might not believe me, and it might not feel like it right now, but it’s going to be ok. I could have told you all about doubting whether I should have stayed so close to home, my concerns about overextending myself with too many classes in too many different fields, worrying about whether I was actually contributing to my Gemstone team, wondering whether I was going to go to law school “by default” or because I wanted to, fears about losing to Duke in basketball, and all the rest. And if I had told you that, it all would have been true. All of that actually was a part of what I just told you. But it’s just one truth. The bigger and broader truth is this: It’s always been ok, and it probably always will be ok. Live that truth and realize that it’s ok right now, too. And right now, right here at the University of Maryland, is a pretty great place to be. Go Terps!

-16 April 2015, Q/A conducted by Lara Fu (Cohort Relations, Class of 2017)

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