Alumni Spotlight: Mark A. Vasquez ME’88
POSTED ON: May 24, 2021
We interviewed Mark A. Vasquez ME’88, a Certified Association Executive (CAE) with over 25 years of experience in association management at IEEE, the world’s largest technical professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity. While at Cooper, Mark was presented with the award for Outstanding Service to the School, due to serving on the Senior Council, establishing the school’s first association for Hispanic students (Amigos), being a freshman counselor multiple times, serving on the Athletic Committee, and more. He has continued to serve the school after graduation by being elected to the Alumni Council for multiple terms, and has also been a Class Rep, chaired the CUAA Events and Gano Dunn Award Committees, and served on the Art Auction & Casino Night Committee. Flip through below and learn more about how Cooper has positively impacted his career journey.
Why did you decide to come to Cooper?
I have my video game "addiction" to thank for my decision to go to Cooper. While waiting in line to play Frogger one day during my junior year at Stuyvesant High School, I overheard the two seniors who were playing the game ahead of me talking about their college choices. One mentioned that they were going to Cooper Union. I had never heard of Cooper before that, but it piqued my curiosity. To that point, schools like Cornell and Columbia had been at the top of my list even though my guidance counselor questioned why I was applying to schools I would not get into (and Cooper soon became part of that list, for her). In the end, I was accepted into all the schools I applied to. Ultimately, the decision to go to Cooper was strongly influenced by finances and age. I grew up in the projects in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the son of a blue-collar dad and a stay-at-home mom, and the first in my family to go to college. We could not afford to send me to the other schools in which I was interested, despite receiving some scholarship funding. In addition, I was only 15 years old when I graduated from high school, so my parents were keen on me staying closer to home (and I must admit that going somewhere outside of the city quickly lost its appeal once I visited some of my other options). Had I not found out about or been accepted into Cooper; I truly do not know how I would have been able to go to college. To be clear, though: despite it seeming like I "settled," that could not be farther from the truth. I am so grateful for having gone to Cooper. It was absolutely the right choice. (And Frogger continues to hold a special place in my heart, as a result.)
How did your experiences and your education at Cooper shape your life after college and your career path thus far?
One of the things I value most about my time at Cooper is found in the second part of its full name: The Cooper Union FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF SCIENCE AND ART. While my class time was spent in what was then the engineering building, the bulk of my free time was spent in the Foundation Building. Many of my friends were in the art and architecture schools. What I did not realize was how much that was shaping my interdisciplinary leanings, although I did have some sense of it while I was there (I envisioned applying my engineering skills in the arts, perhaps in theater or other similar settings). In addition, the part-time job I had during my time at Cooper allowed me to perform a wide variety of tasks (circuit board design, customer service, product demos, desktop publishing/marketing, accounting, etc.). That four-year period informed the work I have done since then. My interests have always been in applying a wide variety of skills and in bringing people together from various stakeholder groups. This is especially true in my current role, in which I manage an IEEE program that focuses on the social and ethical impacts of technology. In addition to engineers and other technology professionals, I also collaborate with people in the fields of philosophy, policy development, law, economics, social anthropology, medicine, and much more (including the general public). Cooper made it my norm to not only be comfortable amongst many different people, but to also appreciate diversity of thought and approaches.
Did you have a favorite Cooper Professor, mentor, class that impacted your life?
I don’t know if I had a favorite professor, mentor, or class so much as a favorite experience. I struggled mightily during my first 2-3 semesters at Cooper, to the point that I was facing dismissal. While navigating that challenging period, I remember conversations I had with two professors. One day, I went to speak with Prof. Klerer about a poor grade I had received in his chemistry class. To this day, I can still hear his raspy voice as he told me: "Vasquez...you just gotta stop f***ing around." At around the same time, I spoke with Prof. Ben-Avi (who at the time was the head of the academic review committee) about my status at the school. After some discussion, he said to me: "You need to decide what you want to do with the rest of your life." These were both quite the shock to the system for a 16-year-old who felt lost. I also did not realize at the time that the fact that I was one of only 3 Hispanic students in my class (and the only male Hispanic) contributed to my sense of feeling like a fish out of water. What ended up changing my trajectory was not more attention to the academics (although I came to realize how well prepared, I truly was when I aced makeup classes I took at other schools). No…the game-changer for me was more engagement in non-academic activities. I became more involved in student government, athletics, clubs and other extracurriculars. That allowed me to become part of a broader community and to make contributions that spoke to other strengths and passions. If I did have to pick a favorite class, though, it would probably be EID101. I loved being able to work with a team to come up with creative solutions to real-world challenges.
What did you learn at Cooper that has served you well throughout your life?
What I think I learned the most was that my identity was not tethered to my academic results. During a recent Cooper Union Alumni Association event, I spoke of the various levels of "misfit-ness" all of us who went to Cooper probably embodied. One of the universal ones was likely a sense of personal success being tied to academic or artistic excellence. My experience at Cooper showed me that I was not defined solely by my grades. I became much more aware of my broader interests and skills, as well as the contributions I could make by embracing those interests and skills.
Tell us about your career and current job?
While at Cooper, I worked part-time for a manufacturer of specialized laboratory equipment for the wastewater industry. After graduation, I stayed on with them full-time. About four years later, the company relocated to Virginia. I opted not to relocate with them. My job search led me to IEEE, where I have been for more than twenty-five years now. In that time, I have been involved in three main areas. My initial role was within the conference publishing business, during which I helped grow the business to more than $25MM in revenue, ushered in a new era of digital content, and addressed several intellectual property rights matters, including ITAR/OFAC impacts. My next role was in strategic development for the conference business, which involved establishing new conference models (especially the introduction of virtual events), cultivating new partnerships with internal and external organizations, and creating content for new audiences. I currently serve as the senior program manager for IEEE TechEthics, a program that drives conversations about the ethical and societal impacts of technology. In this capacity, I work to develop relationships with others in the technology ethics community, produce events, convene thought leaders, and more.
What one piece of advice do you have for current Cooper students or for students who will be graduating, and entering the “real world” soon?
As engineering students, we are often well-trained in the formulaic aspects of things. However, there is no "formula" for success in the real world. Allow yourself the opportunity to deviate from any plan you may have laid out for your future. If something is pulling you in a different direction, listen to it. Give it airtime. And consider whether it may be leading you on a more fulfilling course. Also, do not forget that engineering requires creativity. Embrace that. Keep your imagination flowing. Try new things. Think about the broader impacts. Look at the bigger picture. Help paint that bigger picture.
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