(Presentation day! From left to right: Sharoon Kashif, Lindsey Hastie, Giovana Soares, Drew Lacy and Nick Waters.)
By Drew Lacy, Communication ’14
I heard this kind of offer several times during my academic career, but always considered it too remote to consider seriously. “Free trip to California if you win this competition!” “Free trip to DC if your team does this and that!” They were fun to think about, but nothing I ever took seriously. Who really wins those things, anyway?
So when I saw the title of an email exclaiming, “WE MADE IT!!!! WE’RE GOING TO SAN FRANCISCO!” I almost couldn’t believe what I was reading.
But let’s step back a bit.
It started as a competitive assignment among three groups of two in Dr. Andrew Cudmore’s business classes. The task: to redesign an educational website called “Adventures in Energy” for the American Petroleum Institute. The winning team from the two classes would send their presentation to the national competition. A far off reward floated above us – the potential to win a free trip to California. It was a great offer, but at the time, I was a little more focused on just earning an “A” in the class.
Each of the three groups presented their ideas in class to judges from Florida Tech and a local business. Every team had a different strength–my group’s research shone above the rest, while another group’s financial breakdown and another group’s concept sparkled. But only one team could win, and as we met up for the next class to hear the results, we all found ourselves a little edgy with anticipation.
And then came the announcement. The team that would be submitting their presentation to the national competition was…was…
…not my team. Oh.
I leaned back in my chair, arms crossed, resigned to my unwinning fate. Ah well. It was a good try, anyway.
But the judges had made a suggestion. All of the groups had their strengths – why not combine the best members and content from each group? We all perked up in our seats and discussion started. Who would be on the team? What were our strengths?
Amid the discussion, a finger pointed my way. “She’s good at presenting. We want her!”
I spent the next four hours in the computer lab with my new teammates: Giovana Soares, Lindsey Hastie, Nick Waters and Sharoon Kashif. Suddenly that chance to go to California seemed more real. We added this, and tweaked that, edited that and cut this. We submitted it the second to last week of classes and, truthfully, I forgot about the project. I took my exams, looked over my summer job prospects and continued on with life.
And then I got The Email. The subject: “WE DID IT!!!! WE’RE GOING TO SAN FRANCISCO!” We had placed in the top three out of countless entries from universities nationwide.
We practiced. We packed our bags. We double checked our reservations. We found ourselves briefly confused by time zones.
We were going to California.
I’ll spare you the details of the flights. (Spoiler alert: it was long, but there was only one crying baby.)
When we first landed at the airport, it didn’t feel as though we were too far from home. But as we climbed into an awaiting rented car and headed to our hotel, it was clear: we weren’t in Florida anymore.
Rolling hills, towering mountains, exquisite buildings lined the streets of San Francisco. We had a few hours to kill, so we took the time to wander the city before it was finally time for the introductory dinner. We dressed up and headed to Bistro Boudin, an incredible restaurant specializing in sourdough bread and, of course, seafood. Above the restaurant was a museum that we browsed for a bit. As I glanced out the window to view the bay, I saw it. A trolley, but not just any trolley. It was The Florida Tech trolley, the same one that rings and dings its way across campus, but with different lettering.
“Look! It’s the trolley!” I said to my teammates excitedly. We pointed and marveled while the other teams quietly wondered why we were so excited about a trolley.
I’m no foodie (though I know a good buffalo chicken wrap when I taste one), but the dinner was incredible. It was made interesting because of one particular rule: no sitting next to anyone you know. We split up into tables of five or six and mingled with our competitors and some of the judges. Aside from some friendly competitive jabs at one another, we all managed to play along, despite knowing we’d be competing the next day.
The most important part of dinner? Choosing our presentation order from a hat. I was hoping for first and got it.
We arrived back at the hotel at 10 p.m. (1 a.m. EST for those keeping track). We were exhausted, but practiced into the night before finally collapsing for the evening. The next day we woke up at 4am the next day to practice. As soon as I awoke, I could feel the anxiety building. We dressed up and began to practice, scarfing down granola bars in lieu of breakfast to maximize practice time.
By 7am we were all walking to the location of the competition. All the groups were a bit more reserved than the night before. As dark clouds sprinkled rain on our suits and heels, the tension was thick in the air.
To our surprise (and delight), they provided us with a breakfast buffet. We waited in a large conference room with the other teams and professors, chatting and laughing nervously as we awaited our turn. Finally, the competition coordinator came in.
“Florida Institute of Technology, you’re up!”
As we entered the presentation room, I think we all momentarily forgot to breathe. The room was packed with over 30 judges seated in a horseshoe shape. They came from many companies: The American Petroleum Institute, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Edventure Partners (the case study sponsors) and more.
Our PowerPoint presentation flicked onto the screen and this was it. This was the moment we’d practiced for.
Truthfully, I can’t remember much of the presentation. It was a blur of information packed into a 20-minute time limit. Our project’s main attention grabber was an interactive, individualized front page animation showing the journey oil takes from refineries to the nearest gas station to the user’s address using Google Maps and Street View. The project was based on a beautiful site called The Wilderness Downtown Project.
After our presentation, we had ten minutes of judge Q&A. They asked tough but fair questions, and we each hopped in to answer them for our areas of expertise. As soon as we finished, many of the judges were smiling and they all applauded. I left the room feeling both thrilled and relieved.
The waiting room filled and emptied as each of the groups left to present. After what seemed like hours (but was closer to an hour), we filed into the presentation room for the results.
And then came the announcement. The team that had scored the highest in judging was…was…
…not my team. Oh.
First place went to University of New Mexico and 2nd place to University of Findlay.
We were all briefly struck by intense disappointment. We’d gone all the way to California just to come in third place?
But that’s where it stopped. We were here, in San Francisco, for free, even with third place. And we had beaten out so many other schools to be here. We were proud Panthers.
We spent the rest of the evening exploring San Francisco. Chinatown brought exotic sights, smells and sounds on top of unique and surprisingly affordable knick-knacks. As we waited for a trolley (they call them cable cars in San Fran), I was delighted by a truly wonderful street performer with the unassuming name of Socks. He sang of love and waiting in line for cable cars while the crowd tapped their feet and poured out their pocket change in appreciation.
On the long flight back, I had time to reflect (and managed to make a few business connections). For a communication major at a technology school competing in a business competition, I couldn’t help but feel pretty nice about having that paid plane seat.
Even for third place, a free trip to San Francisco is a darn good consolation prize.