Meet the Student Organizers of HackNYU 2022

By Claire Gu and Keith Allison | April 29, 2022

An Interview with the Students Behind HackNYU

HackNYU is a 48-hour hackathon where NYU students around the world come together to create their dream technology projects from start to finish. This year, more than 579 teams joined the hackathon community to innovate and unlock new industry solutions around five tracks: Inclusion, Health & Well-Being, Sustainability, Education, and Financial Empowerment.

This year's student organizers were Tasmia Anika (Executive Director), Cindy Mata (Sponsorship Chair), Kevin Chen (Tech Chair), Sola Babatunde (Design Chair), Neha Vasudevan (Design Chair), and Emily Yu (Logistics Chair). The event staff also included Melanie Moncayo, Manognya Ravi, Nandita Kohli, Nicole Zhao, Maria Arias, Phoebe Lai, and Khanh Nguyen.

The Download spoke with Tasmia, Cindy, and Kevin about their experience helping to organize a hackathon with over 800 participants and find out what they’ve learned from running the events.

Could you introduce yourself a little bit about your academic background and your role at HackNYU?

Tasmia: I'm currently a senior at NYU Tandon School of Engineering, and I'm studying Integrated Digital Media. For 2022 HackNYU, I was the executive director.

Cindy:  I’m a junior at CAS studying cinema studies. This year I was the Sponsorship Chair for HackNYU.

Kevin: I first heard of HackNYU in my freshman year and I had a really great time participating in HackNYU 2019 as a hacker. So the subsequent year I joined the team.

How did you get involved with HackNYU?

Tasmia: I got involved in HackNYU in my freshman year. It was the middle of the semester, and I was trying to join more clubs and see what I really like. AI ended up going to one of the meetings for HackNYU. I really liked the atmosphere, and I really liked the people, but it was a little late to join. But the director at that time made an exception because the club needed a person in logistics. So I ended up doing that and helping out a lot during the actual hackathon portion of it. And then, in the next year, I became part of the sponsorship team, and then the following year I was the Sponsorship Chair.

Cindy: In my freshman year, in spring of 2020, I was just a volunteer for HackNYU. I handed out food and set up chairs. Later on, this December, I got an email from Tasmia asking, "Hey, are you still in school and are you still interested?" I actually had done a hackathon before this, as a marketing director, so I was like, yeah, I'm totally happy to join and became another Chair because it's something I really enjoy doing.

Cindy, you said you’re in Cinema Studies. What  got you interested in HackNYU?

Cindy: When I came into NYU I was a computer science major. I changed that three semesters later, when I found that I love the Cinema Studies department because of how open it was to people and to new ideas. But obviously I still love technology, and I still want to put a lot of time into it. I found that these other opportunities that are very people-oriented and very idea-oriented, where I could put my technology skills to use and build on them.  

Kevin, as someone who participated in HackNYU and then became an organizer, what was one of the most surprising things that didn't realize an organizer had to do?

Kevin: Just the crazy amount of logistics. Everyone said that it was pretty well-done, but we had so many issues, and people just had to take on a task and get it done before everything started.

Cindy: We had job roles, and those job roles very much changed over the course of the event!

What was it like going from an in-person event in 2020 to a virtual event this year?

Tasmia: Definitely the planning portion required a lot of…we were venturing into different territory! In 2020, even though we had a lot of work, we had frameworks that were created for the past six years that we could follow. We have contacts within NYU to secure resources. Everything was set up, and we just needed to reach out and negotiate contracts.

Going into 2022, we were definitely thinking about the different models that we could use, either hybrid or in-person, but where the NYU policy ended up, we weren't allowed to have a hybrid event. So we were just taking it in stride, trying different strategies. A lot of us attended hackathons virtually to see what it was like and take notes—what we liked, what we didn't like—and just trying to make the experience as close to the in-person experience as possible. 

We implemented a lot of tools that were used to create connections between hackers and for team formation events. But the difference was definitely large, and we had to do a lot of things to make sure we were compensating for that. We used a platform called Gather. It's a virtual tool where you can create an avatar and different rooms. Our participants can go into different rooms, and if they come near each other, they can hear voices and automatically sync up video cameras. So it creates a feeling of spontaneous conversations that you would have at an in-person hackathon, where you can just go to a random person and start a conversation. We had a lot of fun games, and we had a lot of people just sending thoughts, finding teammates, and just talking to us.

Was there any unexpected sort of benefits or things that surprised you about it being a virtual event?

Cindy: I think one of the drawbacks—and also kind of a benefit—is the fact that we had a lot of international students competing, so they would have to stay awake until like 3am to attend our workshops and would also be hacking through the night. That doesn't usually happen. People usually take a little time off, but they were awake during our middle of the night. [The benefit of that is that] they got to have a lot of downtimes that was super calm for hacking, whereas everyone else was trying to line up hacking with the workshops.

How did you bring so many participants from outside of New York and outside of college age into this year’s HackNYU?

Tasmia: One of our main goals is to have a diverse pool of participants. So we strategize an outreach to reflect that. We reach out to the high school contacts that we have, and to all of the colleges and different departments. Often, hackathons will only reach out to computer science departments, but we like to reach out to creative departments as well, because they might have students interested in fields like UX/UI and entrepreneurship. We also reached out to some bootcamps.

Cindy: When you look at the participants, people are from a lot of different backgrounds. People were also super excited about our UX/UI design sponsor, and we had a lot of those types of projects. I'm very happy to see that it's not just computer science people who are super into coding.

What’s the most exciting part of organizing the event, especially this year it’s going on virtually and with a large proportion of participants joining virtually?

Kevin: The most exciting thing for me was, since it’s an online hackathon, we were able to reach out to more people, compared to if we had hosted in-person. We had a lot of international hackers who were able to attend. I think people were appreciative of it being online and being able to participate.

Tasmia: For me the most exciting part was all the different sponsors, recruiters, and mentors that showed up for us, engaged with the participants, holding other events at the same time. Logistically, figuring that out and having it work was really satisfying. I was blown away by the support we had from workshop hosts and mentors staying up late to be around and help our hackers do their thing. And we also had a bunch of judges coming in last-minute because we had so many projects that we weren't expecting. We were expecting 80, which is around what we had last year, but we had 116, so we had to get extra judges and people were very receptive to it.

Cindy: My favorite thing was seeing the behind-the-scenes actually taking place. I’ve been to hackathons as a hacker, and I've been to other hackathons, as the marketing chair. But it's different when it's HackNYU, which is really big and has people joining from all over the world. So you have to schedule stuff at night, when it's like 2am and people are still on their computer trying to help out.

Or you have to line up all the mentor schedules and judging. We had so many projects that we had to go in ourselves, as organizers, and mediate conversations. It’s super fun to see everything come together. Even though we were getting a lot of amazing compliments from our participants, we only saw all the chaos happening behind the scenes. But I'm glad that our participants thought the hackathon was flawless!

Tasmia: I also want to add that this year we had two organizers studying abroad. Kevin is one of them. It's just great to have people that are in different parts of the world come together and plan and execute the event, seeing people so dedicated and putting so much time and energy into this event without receiving anything or getting paid—just for the passion.

Are there any impressive or interesting projects that stand out to you?

Tasmia: There were definitely instances when we looked at so many, especially for some of the smaller challenges where anyone could participate—everyone was participating. It was very hard to narrow down from 80 or a hundred entries. But there were definitely some that stood out.  There are some hackers that we saw pop up a lot in the Discord chat, and we would finally get to see what they were making. It was fun to see that they had been doing things behind the scenes just like we were.

We had a high school team, and their project really stood out to me. They had been really active in the Discord, so I got to know them, got to see their faces, got to see them win something. It was a crazy hack called Peer Organ. It was like Tinder but for donating organs. We gave that one "Most Outrageous Hack."

Cindy: I think there were just so many incredible hacks. I was blown away that people can produce these in just one weekend. One of my favorites was a hardware hack. Someone built a robot that you could control by gestures. Gesture Control Bot. The fact that they built a whole robot in a weekend was really impressive.  

What are some of your goals and expectations for HackNYU 2023?

Tasmia: At this point, we are hoping for an in-person hackathon because we really missed it, but our hackathon will depend on NYU [COVID] policies. I'm actually graduating, and Cindy is going to be one of the co-directors next year.  

Cindy: I think like 90% of our board is graduating! I'm one of the ones left behind, and I'm very happy to help out. Kevin, you can be a mentor!

What advice do our graduating Chairs have for Cindy?

Tasmia: Cindy's been here before, so she knows this. It's just a crazy ride. It's just one thing after the other, when you solve a problem, five more pop up. But at the end of the day, there is just a surreal feeling at the actual hackathon when you actually get to it. You see the whole thing set up and think, "Wow, I contributed to making this happen." I think that is why so many organizers—Kevin and I joined freshman year—stay on the team. I think Cindy will do an amazing job and good luck!

Kevin: Having a team you can depend on is one of the best things, especially when things get chaotic. Good luck, Cindy!

Tasmia: A good team is absolutely necessary. +1 to that!

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