HackIllinois Celebrates a Milestone Anniversary with its Trademark Energy, Enthusiasm

3/7/2023 Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Student co-directors Deeya Bodas and Jonathan Gao, both second-year Illinois Computer Science undergraduate students, explain the unique traits of HackIllinois that have enabled its success over 10 years. 

Written by Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

HackIllinois participants sitting together with the room darkened and neon lighting shading the room.
HackIllinois participants work at the Campus Instructional Facility (CIF) during the 10th edition of the event held in late February at both the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science and CIF. 
All photos courtesy of HackIllinois

Computer Science second-year undergraduate students and HackIllinois co-directors, Deeya Bodas and Jonathan Gao, allowed themselves to tally up one simple statistic that helps define impact of the nation’s premier collegiate and student-run hackathon.

Since inheriting the leadership role, both Bodas and Gao have embraced, not shied away from, the importance of this year’s event also being the hackathon’s 10th anniversary.

HackIllinois staff pictured filling up the stairway on the first floor of the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science prior to the event.
Student co-directors Jonathan Gao (front left) and Deeya Bodas (front right) pictured with HackIllinois staff at the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science during this year's event.

Still, the moment in which both co-directors realized that nearly 10,000 students have participated in the event over the years confirmed the immensity and importance of it.

“To think about the sheer number of people who have attended is amazing. I was in awe and still am,” Bodas said. “A few weeks into planning a year ago, when I was a first-year student on the organizing team, I found out that people bussed in from around Chicago and even other states. It’s an amazing feeling to be a part of something that people think so highly of that they’ll happily sacrifice so much of their time to travel and participate in the event.”

A defining experience for many students interested in CS, HackIllinois features a weekend’s worth of competitions, games, and sessions that provide a unique opportunity for growth in the discipline while inherently embracing the social element of computing.

The theme for this year’s event was “Making Memories.”

Bodas and Gao, along with a staff of just more than 50 student organizers, welcomed about 750 participants and nine corporate sponsors back to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus from February 24-26.

HackIllinois: Concentrated Innovation

Note: The following is an excerpt from coverage of the first-ever HackIllinois.

On Friday, April 11, the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science witnessed the first-ever HackIllinois event. This student organized and student run event brought in 750 students from 21 universities and college in the Midwest for a weekend of intense computer science competition and fun.

CS student Matthew Dierker was the director of the event. It was his email seeking volunteers in October 2013 that initiated the creation of this event. “My job was to build the whole thing,” he said. “To bring people in, and when they were there, to put them on doing things. Later we were moving people to coordinating with companies, and moving on to logistics, and making sure we have stuff for the website. It’s creating the teams, all that sort of thing.”

Dierker was assisted by CS students Marrissa Hellesen, corporate director; Emily Tran, operations director; Sam Gnesin and Sanny Lin, media directors; and Alex Burck, systems director. They also had a staff of over 50 who participated in these various areas. During the HackIllinois weekend an additional 200 volunteers assisted with the event.

Tran described the goal of HackIllinois as “[creating] a fun atmosphere where students get a chance to collaborate with their peers to work on cool projects outside of the classroom and to use the latest and greatest technologies.”

Read the full article.

That attendance figure reached similar numbers to past in-person experiences, after the COVID-19 pandemic caused a virtual version for the 2021 and 2022 HackIllinois events.

With students and vendors packed into both the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science and the Campus Instructional Facility, a familiar buzz of activity and excitement provided the perfect backdrop to celebrate 10 years of this remarkable environment.

“One of the other things that I think is so cool about this year’s milestone event, which coincides nicely with being back in-person, is that many of our former directors told us they were coming back for the weekend,” Gao said. “It’s cool to see that they are still so engaged with an event that they were a part of however many years ago when they participated. Most have moved far beyond HackIllinois. They have their own careers, maybe their own families. Yet, they still want to make this weekend a priority in their lives.

“We are so lucky to remain connected with past directors, at least the vast majority of them, and do so through a group chat. There are so many people in that group chat, people who have put their blood, sweat, and tears into HackIllinois. To be even just one small part, one chapter of that very long story, is so special.”

Additionally, Bodas said that student organizers found small ways to connect this year’s event to years past.

A balloon arch welcomed everyone attending and recognized the milestone anniversary. They even found items used for promotional purposes from past events. Bodas said there was a set of construction hats that came complete with a light on top, which, remarkably enough, still worked.

But the true meaning of the event, both directors said, runs far deeper than these sorts of acknowledgements and fun memories.

Bodas mentioned that she helped lead hackathons in high school and loved the events, but none compared to HackIllinois.

“Between the attendees, staff, and corporate vendors, the realization I’ve had about HackIllinois is that there is this overwhelming sense of family,” Bodas said. “I spend so much time with the fellow organizers. Outside of the progress we made on the event, we also talk a lot about the courses we are taking and some of us are even in the same courses. We study together and hang out.

“I’m also amazed that the same vendors have been sponsoring and attending HackIllinois, some for all 10 years it’s existed. They come back year after year because they enjoy the purpose of the event. They add to the value by helping attendees learn more about CS.”

For Gao, growing up in a rural part of southern Illinois, connectivity to computer science education was sparse. In fact, he remembers searching for specifics online.

HackIllinois participants and vendors in the Siebel Center Atrium.
HackIllinois participants and vendors in the Siebel Center Atrium.

But now he’s helping connect others – people who are also just beginning their CS experiences – to a community that thrives on togetherness and learning.

“One thing I love about HackIllinois is that it’s a beginner focused hackathon. Obviously, we also accept people with all levels of CS expertise; some participants have been coding for three months, others for most of their lives,” Gao said. “But at a younger age, I did a lot of learning on my own about computer science. And that’s why it’s important and special to me to be part of an event that's providing opportunities to other people, especially beginners who may not have had opportunities within CS in the past.”

As the days preceding this year’s event slipped away, both co-directors mentioned that their own inspiration carried them toward the finish line – along with a supreme confidence in their peers on staff.

The combination caused a funny thing to happen for Bodas.

“I tend do get a little stressed about things sometimes. But for this year’s HackIllinois I felt this very overwhelming sense of calm,” Bodas said. “I had my classes that keep me busy, but I didn’t ever feel pressure coming from HackIllinois – at least not during the last week or two leading up to it.”

A good omen that pointed to another successful HackIllinois.

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This story was published March 7, 2023.