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Alumnus Joshua Mindel intrigued by what’s beyond the next door

2020 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient Joshua Mindel.
2020 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient Joshua Mindel.

“Figure out what excites you and chase that.”

Often these words are easier said than done. But for Virginia Tech alumnus Joshua Mindel (civil engineering ’82, master’s in computer science ’86), these words have been guiding principles throughout his life.

Drawn to Virginia Tech for its strong civil engineering program, Mindel found the southwest Virginia culture to be a sharp contrast from his world in Poughkeepsie, New York. During his undergraduate co-op to discover the niche of civil engineering he wanted to explore he unearthed a passion that would lead him to pursue a master’s degree in computer science.

His graduate studies proved to be a pivotal, exploratory experience. It was during this time that Mindel befriended many international students from China and India. “This ignited my interest in exploring and immersing myself in other countries.”

Fast forward to 1994. Mindel had been working in Washington D.C. for almost eight years in the technology field, but felt like something was missing. “I ached to do something more rewarding,” shared Mindel. “I was bored of working hard, pursuing material comforts, and having a minimal impact on humanity.”

The connections he had made with the international community at Virginia Tech sparked a love for travel and an observer of cultures around the world. He travelled extensively throughout parts of Southeast Asia and met many people that fundamentally altered his outlook on the “relationship between wealth, generosity, spirit, and happiness.” 

He knew two things: he wanted to immerse himself in another country and do something useful and rewarding related to international development.  

With his heart set on a post in Vietnam, he soon realized it was not going to be available. A few months later, he received a phone call to serve on the UNICEF Liberia team based in Monrovia. Africa had not been on his radar. The backdrop of the raging civil war did not give him great reassurance. Mindel initially declined the offer, but the country representative was not willing to let him walk away from the opportunity.

To counter his concerns, Mindel asked to speak to other international staffers. He was relieved to hear that the United Nations (UN) provided a security team for protection. Working through a list of scenarios, he finally made the decision to go. 

Even though it was a six-month contract, Mindel knew he was on an open-ended journey and would not likely return to the States for at least a couple of years. 

While setting on this uncertain path, Mindel did not fully anticipate the interesting and motivating people he would find in his post. “Uncertainty swings both ways, not just towards undesirable outcomes,” he shared in a recent Linkedin article about his overseas volunteer experiences.

Mindel became the information resource management project officer, with responsibility for all issues related to information systems used by the UNICEF Liberia team, including improving computer skills for 100 local and international staff. 

 

Mindel 's volunteer work helped UNICEF program staff stay focused on delivering their aid services to Liberians rather than getting blocked by information technology challenges.
Mindel 's volunteer work helped UNICEF program staff stay focused on delivering their aid services to Liberians rather than getting blocked by information technology challenges.

Several months after he arrived in Monrovia, Mindel noticed that he had never second-guessed his decision once it was made. In fact, he was making project plans that would span two years, which would include renewing his UNV Liberia contract several times.

“This shocked me because I had hesitated in making such a life change for years before actually departing.”

Near the time of his first renewal, Mindel received an offer from the UNV office in Hanoi, Vietnam. “I grappled with this choice because I loved what I was doing in Liberia, yet knew that long-term I wanted a foothold in Vietnam.”

He ultimately opted for the geographic placement in Vietnam, where he proved to himself that he was “very adaptable and resourceful to thrive” in that type of environment. He not only thrived but also became the first Peace Corps volunteer in Vietnam.

After one year of serving as a UNV, he continued to serve in a consultant role in Vietnam for three years before heading back to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon University.

For the past 12 years, Mindel has worked at Google in San Francisco currently serving as manager of the technical program management team for data engineering. Looking back over his career, Mindel is still very excited about his choice to pursue computer science. “It’s a great degree to expand your mind, demonstrate that you have the ability to learn a technical field, and an interesting field to practice in and of itself, not just a ticket to other things.”