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Unveiling Career Insights: UH Students Shine at exCITE Talks

Experiential Learning Widens Perspectives for Undergrad Scholars


Sept. 28, 2023

By Celina Sandoval, 713-743-3774

This year marked the fifth year for the University of Houston’s exCITE Talks, a collegial competition in which students deliver short and impactful presentations on recent experiential learning opportunities. The championship round for this annual event was conducted Sept. 18, in the Elizabeth D. Rockwell Pavilion with 10 finalists sharing unique perspectives on their summer co-curricular experiences.

Inspired by the Three-Minute-Thesis (3MT), exCITE Talks participants compete by giving three-minute elevator pitches on projects developed during their co-curricular learning experiences. This year, 39 students applied to the competition and 10 finalists were selected to compete in the final round. exCITE Talks finalists included Daniela Castillo, Paul Daniel, Arushi Dheer, Danielle Henry, Annan Khan, Rosemarie Le, Miranda Ruzinsky, Adolfo Salazar, Alex Valero and Mielad Ziaee.

Topics ranged from collaborative work environments, cultural links between folk medicine and public health inclusivity, urban resilience through natural landscapes, and addressing imposter syndrome.

Student presentations were evaluated by a panel of judges that included: Maggie Mahoney, director of global engagement in the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), Jerrod Henderson, assistant professor in the William A. Brookshire Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in the Cullen College of Engineering, and Ben Rayder, Honors College professor and executive director for the Office of Undergraduate Research and Major Awards (OURMA).

The competition’s winners were Rosemarie Le (first place), Daniella Castillo (second), Arushi Dheer (third) and Paul Daniel (People’s Choice).

Rosemarie Le, an Honors biomedical sciences major minoring in medicine and society, aspires to become a physician-scientist. Le’s talk was titled the Tale of Two Cultures and focused on work-life balance and stress management as prevailing societal concerns. The topic was inspired by a recent experience interning for Swiss research institution EPFL. Her work and research at EFL involved episodic memory, bodily self-consciousness, and sensory perception. As challenges arose when seeking solutions to her laboratory efforts, Le was forced to take a step back and appreciate the value of time outside of the lab.

During her time in Switzerland, Le observed vast differences between Swiss and American culture when it came to work- life balance and how professionals define individual success and identity in their career. She was able to take away a much deeper understanding and appreciation for the Swiss culture which seemed to lend more encouragement and compassion to cultivating a sense of self outside of the workplace. Such work-life balance leads to reduced stress levels and allowed Le to find solutions to her lab challenges.

Other finalists’ experiential topics are as follows:

  • Daniella Castillo (second place) and a UH Harris Fellow, functioned as a liaison for community relations in the office of Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia, aiding families in locating programs aimed at averting evictions and other hardships.
  • Arushi Dheer (third place) harnessed her passion for art to forge connections with patients and their families during their hospital stays.
  • Paul Daniels (People's Choice award) highlighted the substantial impact of his peers' positive outlook on his own experience and expressed a desire to emulate them while researching stem cell and cellular therapy.

“There seems to be a common theme this year among our competitors that evokes a deeper sense of awareness around mental health,” said Anne Dayton, director of CITE. “This group of finalists placed more emphasis on mental health or emotional challenges than on the technical aspects of their projects. Students also framed these as shared struggles instead of individual problems.” Dayton attributes the focus the University of Houston has on the community of care as a strong contributing factor to students’ decisions to talk about these challenges as communal challenges and see ways that they can make meaningful changes in their outlook when it comes to their individual career paths.

The Cougar Initiative to Engage (CITE) is a focused initiative at the University of Houston aimed at enhancing experiential learning and community engagement for students. CITE aims to achieve several goals, including improving essential competencies for student success, increasing high-impact co-curricular activities, boosting student participation in such activities, and ensuring graduates are well-prepared for their careers and global citizenship responsibilities.

Experiential learning programs supported by CITE, OURMA, and other campus initiatives, offer hands-on, real-world experiences as a way of acquiring knowledge, skills, and competencies. These programs can take various forms, including internships, co-op programs, service learning, fieldwork, simulations, research projects, and more. Experiential learning is widely recognized for its effectiveness in preparing students for future careers and enhancing their overall educational experience. It is evidence seen from this year’s exCITE Talk students that their learning experiences have led to a higher confidence and professionalism, given them a greater clarification of career goals, and have had a positive impact on their academic performance.

Pictured first (L-R) exCITE Talks finalists: Daniela Castillo, Alex Valero, Rosemarie Le, Mielad Ziae, Arushi Dheer, Adolfo Salazar, Miranda Ruzinsky, Paul Daniel, Danielle Henry, and Annan Khan.

Pictured second, exCITE Talks first place winner, Rosemarie Le.