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  • Zemin Dhanani, Clemson University

My week as a Student Assistant at the Esri User Conference 2017

As a graduate student in the City and Regional Planning program at Clemson University, I was introduced to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) through a course in my first year. It made me aware that geography and its new technologies are critical components in the global infrastructure, in universities, and in society. My understanding is that the integrative capabilities of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and Science are increasingly helping to shape a new landscape of science – one that has 'space' as its defining framework. It has extended the frontiers of many disciplines and emerged as a discipline. For example, it has been used in epidemiology to assess and model disease distributions; in transport planning to optimize ambulance response times; in hurricane prediction to manage disaster response and mitigation; and in retail to examine customer behavior and service planning.

Through the impressive live Esri presentation on GIS day 2017, I understood that GIS is the glue that underpins data sharing across disciplines, embedding geography and GIS in research and applications far beyond geography itself. Amazed by the impact of this technology, I vowed to increase my expertise in GIS and wrestled to intern at Clemson Center for Geospatial Technologies (CCGT).

It was at this GIS day when I first learnt from the representatives about what Esri had to offer for students at the user conference. My mind gleamed about the extravagantly rich possibilities of the experience the Esri user conference would provide and I decided to apply for the student assistantship position. The application required a resume, a cover letter, and one letter of recommendation. Thankfully, my letter of recommendation was written by the Co-director of CCG where I interned, Mrs. Patricia Carbajales-Dale. A few weeks later, I jumped off my bed when I received an email from Esri stating that I was one of the students selected! I knew this was going to be a kind of experience that would be pivotal for my career going ahead considering my interests in GIS.

The student assistantship program required all students to be in San Diego from July 7- 14th 2017. Upon arrival, we were given a tour of the enormous San Diego convention center that was going to host approximately 18,000 people for the conference. The three levels of the convention center were going to host different events such as registration, the expo/Esri showcase, sessions, technical workshops, and the map gallery. That same afternoon, all 60 of us from six countries had some time to get to know each other over dinner.

The very next day, Esri had organized a dinner for all the Student Assistants. They gave us a short history about the program and its importance. A personal message by Jack Dangermond got us all motivated and excited for the week ahead. His message clearly explained how greatly Esri thinks about its users and why they wanted us to represent Esri well during the week. We also got the opportunity to meet Dawn Wright, Chief Scientist at Esri, who talked about her journey from childhood to her current position at Esri. Everyone from Esri had warned us about the coming week being very tiring and hectic but also how the week would be such a memorable event that we would cherish forever.

As student assistants, we were all given different shifts such as registration, store, technical workshops, plenary, and social media, all shifts consisted of 8-10 people. A few weeks before the conference we were asked to pick schedules from the various options that were made available, I chose a schedule that had more of the technical workshops so that I would get the opportunity to not only moderate a workshop but also sit and listen to the speakers. The other shifts I got were working at the Esri store, which in a day or two sold most of its stuff. I handled the cash register and did a lot of product stocking on the shelves. My best experience was working the registration shift on Monday morning, which was the main day for registrations and badge pick up. We were asked to guide and keep the attendees moving. During the early hours of my shift I saw approximately 8,000-10,000 people come and collect their badges. The excitement to be at the conference on everyone’s face showed how glad and happy they all were to attend the conference.

The plenary sessions were much awaited by every attendee; the hall that hosted the plenary had around 12,000 chairs. Fortunate of having a half day shift on the day of the plenary allowed me to attend one of the three-plenary sessions. Jack Dangermond was the driver of the session who talked about the science of where and why this was the theme of the conference this year. This was carried on by Dawn Wright, Esri’s chief scientist. Brandon Jarrat, the award winner for animation in the movie Zootopia from Walt Disney, talked about how they leveraged City Engine to model cities for the movies they create at Walt Disney and H.E. Dr. Aisha Bin Bishr talked about smart Dubai and how they are leveraging GIS technology for their smart city plans. As Esri is looking to provide GIS knowledge to the young high school students, some students from 4-H Tennessee GIS talked about their project using the products from Esri. Apart from the plenary, I also had time each day after working the 5-6-hour shift to attend a couple of sessions and demos that interested me.

The user conference had about 18,000 people, which meant there would be ample opportunities to network with like-minded people. The student assistant’s badge helped network easily, people I spoke with showed interest and were welcoming. Over the past couple of months, I have enjoyed working with GIS, and want to have a career in it. The interactions at the UC with staff members from Esri really helped in reinforcing my interests moving forward. Some of the staff members who managed the Student Assistants (SA) were SA’s in the past years. They talked about their experiences and how they landed a job at Esri. An HR recruiter in the team also guided and answered all our questions and gave us some of his tips as a recruiter. Apart from these, Esri’s young professional network also organized a couple of events, which served as platforms to network and celebrate at the same time.

We were all very tired after standing the whole day, working shifts, and seeing around the conference center. The early warning from the staff was now being realized. It was only a week we were all going to spend this time together and that’s why we kept on working and partying whole-heartedly throughout the week. Esri had also organized a party on a Thursday evening, renting the whole of Balboa Park. There was food, music, dance, and a lot of people!

The week had run by very quickly, it was already Friday when Jack Dangermond thanked all the student assistants at the closing keynote. After lunch that afternoon, it was time to say the hard goodbye to everyone. We had only spent a week together but the bonds we created working with each other were genuine and would last forever. The Esri staff that managed us were proud of the work we did. The opportunity was incredible; there were so many good lessons to take from this experience. I encourage people that read this to explore such an opportunity if your interests are in Geography and GIS.

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