Ten students were named winners of the 2012 IBM Destination z Enterprise Computing Scholarship  in January. The students were honored for their academic efforts and commitment to pursue careers in mainframe.

This year’s scholarships were made possible by donations from IBM, Innovation Data Processing, PKWARE, Rocket Software, Trident Services, Velocity Software and Vicom Infinity. “We owe a great deal of gratitude to our scholarship sponsors for their continued support of this program,” says Mike Todd, who oversees the scholarship fund for the IBM Academic Initiative System z. “For this year’s scholarship, we had more support from the Destination z community than we’ve ever had before. Their generosity enables us to recognize these excellent mainframe students from some of the premier enterprise computing programs in the country.

“When you see the quality of the scholarship applications, and the great work these students are doing on the System z platform, it makes you feel good that the Destination z scholarship is here to reward their efforts,” Todd notes.

Selected from 31 applications, the most in the scholarship program’s five-year history, the 10 recipients were:

• Chris Richardson, University of South Carolina
• Subashree Ramachandran, Northern Illinois University
• James Ewell, West Texas A&M University
• Ronesha Sharma, University of Arkansas
• Joseph Lodin, Rochester Institute of Technology
• Theodore Huntley, Illinois State University
• Jenna-Shae Banks, North Carolina A&T University
• Dontrell Harris, North Carolina A&T University
• Jie Hou, Northern Illinois University
• Shane Hale, Rochester Institute of Technology

Topping the list, Richardson received the Greg Zaubi Memorial Scholarship, which includes a $1,500 award. (Zaubi was a Marist College systems programmer who spent the latter part of his career connecting thousands of students and professors worldwide to System z, through the mainframe Knowledge Center hub.)

A senior at the University of South Carolina’s College of Integrated Information Technology in Columbia, Richardson will graduate with an IT degree in August. Upon learning he had won, he says, “I was surprised because I knew the competition would be strong, so I was thoroughly and pleasantly surprised … that Destination z members thought enough of me to give me this honor.”

And while the financial assistance definitely helps, Richardson says, the recognition means more than that.

“As soon as I found out, I put it on my resume,” he adds. “It immediately gave me reaffirmation that I’m on the right track. It just gave me more confidence. If they think I’m worthy, I’m doing something right.”

It was particularly gratifying following some difficulties over the past year, says Richardson who took an internship with the IBM Technical Exploration Center in Raleigh, N.C., which took him away from his wife Alyona and son Tristan, who is nearly 4. “It was rough, but this shows the sacrifices I made weren’t in vain,” Richardson adds. “You see the culmination of your efforts paying off, and it helps you make that last push.”

Richardson wasn’t always so confident about his direction. A non-traditional student, he worked several jobs and traveled in Europe and the U.S. after a knee injury thwarted his post-high school plans to play college basketball. Seeking a career that would help support a young family, he enrolled at the University of South Carolina. While he knew he had an interest and passion for technology, Richardson says, he wasn’t sure where to narrow his focus when he returned to college. With the help of his first mainframe mentor, Dr. Bob Brookshire, a professor in the Integrated IT Department, he was able to make that decision.

“When I came back to school, I knew I wanted to go into IT, but I was trying to find direction in a very broad field,” Richardson recalls. “I was initially looking at getting an engineering degree. I spoke to Dr. Brookshire, and not to disparage other departments, he said, ‘Our students get jobs.’ Now, you’ve got my interest. That set me in the right direction.”

Additional mentors include Morris Davis of IBM whom Richardson met through his IBM internship, and IBMer Mark Anzani whom he met while interning with IT-ology, a collaboration of businesses, academic institutions and organizations dedicated to encourage young people to become IT professionals. Both internships were valuable in teaching the value of teamwork, collaboration and networking, Richardson adds. “IT is a broad field, so when it comes to creating a network, I try to make it as wide as I can. I try to speak with them and establish a line of communication because that person might be able to help me out, or maybe I can help them out some day.”

Like many aspiring mainframers, one of Richardson’s first exposures to System z was through the Master the Mainframe contest two years ago. Despite some initial trepidation, he didn’t back down. “When I entered the Master the Mainframe contest, I didn’t know anything about it. For members of my generation, they automatically think the mainframe is archaic or old. Or they get intimidated by the technology; I see it as a challenge.”

In addition to his enterprise computing coursework, the contest spurred Richardson to learn about System z technology, reading as much as he could about the topic. “I would stay up until four in the morning reading up on it, trying to figure out what was going on.” In 2011, he finished the first part of the Master the Mainframe contest but set his sights higher in 2012, finishing both parts one and two.

“Good things come to those who aren’t afraid to be uncomfortable. Embrace it,” says Richardson. “I don’t mind being uncomfortable. Even when I’m at a meeting and people are talking over my head, if I can catch bits and pieces, I can use that to come back to it later and educate myself about different topics.”

After graduation, Richardson would like work in technical sales and act as a liaison to clients, which would allow him to utilize his communication and networking skills as well as his technical knowledge. “My future goal is to be an IT manager,” he adds. “I definitely hope this scholarship goes a long way to accomplish that.”

Mike Westholder is site editor of destinationz.org.