Exploring the Everglades

My STEP signature project involved taking a trip to Everglades National Park in Florida and practicing my photography skills on the beautiful wildlife there. I was there for seven days, and each day, I had a different activity planned that involved trying something new or scary, learning new things, or practicing various types of photography in different settings.

This trip was an amazing experience for me in so many ways. First and foremost, I went to do photography, and oh, did I. Every day in the Everglades, every place I went, I was thinking about photography–how could I get the perfect shot, where would be the best place for me to sit on the tour, how could I avoid getting wet, etc. I always had a camera with me of some sort, whether it be my professional camera, a GoPro, or even on occasion my phone. I bought my professional camera last summer, and was able to practice with it then while I was in Seattle for my internship. However, this trip to the Everglades was a whole new ballgame. I had done a couple hikes in Washington, so I was able to do some nature photography there, but I had never practiced with wildlife. And let me tell you, trying to get pictures of animals that were often constantly in motion, sometimes competing for space with other tourists, was a learning experience. Despite the difficulty I faced, I was pleasantly surprised by my pictures, and ultimately really happy with how they turned out. That being said, I took a lot of photos. I learned the patience it takes, not only to capture the pictures themselves, but to filter through hundreds of photos and footage and pick out the best shots to put in my photo essay. Another “lesson learned” was that the small lens I had didn’t work well with capturing wildlife, as the zoom was pretty much next to none. It was hard to get close enough to the animals to get decent shots, so in the future, I’ll invest in a bigger lens.

Aside from just photography, though, I learned a lot about myself. I was able to plan and coordinate the entire trip by myself, and learn how to handle things if they didn’t follow my plans exactly. I also tried some things that were scary for me, like a 15-mile bike ride. Before the trip, I hadn’t ridden a bike in 2 years and have avoided them at all costs because I don’t trust myself or my coordination. As such, I was terrified. However, the bike ride actually ended up being great, despite difficult because I was (am) out of shape. We made it to the halfway point and I got some great pictures on the observation tower, didn’t crash, and only almost took a nosedive into the gator-infested march once. I had several opportunities like this to test myself, and I think I’m actually a pretty capable human being and I can do scary things and communicate with people and make things happen that need to happen. For that, if nothing else, the trip was worth it.

One of the major things I learned on the trip was how to roll with the punches when things don’t go as you expect–there were two key experiences that contributed to this. The first was the day that we wanted to go fishing. I had tried to look up fishing gear rental places, and the results were sparse. Still, there was a place outside of the south entrance that looked promising. When we arrived, we thought we had made a mistake. Instead of a bait shop, we ended up at a fruit stand and farm with the charming title “Robert is Here.” We got out and explored, and it actually ended up being such a hidden gem of a place, with a petting zoo-like farm in the back, a sign on the front announcing the owner’s new adoption after one thousand days of waiting, and hundreds of fresh fruits and homemade spreads. We got a smoothie and discovered the tiny kayak and fishing gear rental stand right beside Robert is Here–closed. We called and they suggested just buying stuff from Walmart, so that’s exactly what we did. Going in blind and not having much experience with fishing, figuring out not only what to buy but also how to put it together once we got to the lake was a challenge. We got to the lake much later than intended because of all the delays, not to mention missing the initial turn to get to the lake, and I only caught one small fish despite all the setup, but it actually ended up being a great day. Robert is Here was such a wholesome and happy place that kind of just made my day–how could I be mad about anything after that? Pine Glades Lake was a beautiful place, and since we got there so late, we got to watch the sunset on the water. And even though I only caught one fish, it was so exciting when I did that I didn’t even mind.

The second hiccup of the trip was a less exciting experience. Our flight home was supposed to leave at 6:00am on Saturday. We woke up at 4:00am to finish packing, left for the airport around 4:45, and got to the airport around 5:00am, which is what we had intended. However, we didn’t take into account that we had a rental car with us, and the rental car center was poorly marked so we had to drive around for a while to figure out where to return the car, not to mention a ten minute walk back to the terminal. We checked in our bag at 5:30am, where we were told “you’re way too late.” We got put on standby for the 7:00am flight, and once we didn’t get on that, got moved to standby for the 8:00am flight, and once we didn’t get on that… you can see where this is going. After we didn’t get on the 8:00am, we decided to call the Delta help hotline to see if we had any other options. Keep in mind, I was already well enough emotional by this point, so when she initially told us that they couldn’t do anything to help, I was distraught. However, she stayed on the phone and continued to look up options for us, and eventually found a flight leaving on Sunday, somehow getting us this flight for free. We decided to go with that option, and I had some Marriott rewards points saved up from my summer internship, so I was able to get a hotel with that. Despite an extremely stressful morning and a lot of frustration with myself for not getting there earlier, it probably ended up being the best solution we could have found. After that, I kind of just had to take a deep breath and remember that no matter how much planning you do, sometimes, things just happen. It all ended up working out in the end, and I’m ultimately glad I got experience dealing with that kind of situation.

Aside from the mishaps, there were also so many amazing people we met and things we saw that made the experience transformational for me. In general, I wanted to avoid things that were too touristy–the airboat ride was probably the most touristy thing we did, and it was also my least favorite. It was quite hard to get pictures since the boat moved fast most of the time, and was mainly just so tourists could get glimpses of gators. The other tours we did, however, were extremely well done. The dolphin and birding photo boat tour ended up being a small, quiet boat designed for us to get good pictures and not disturb the wildlife. While out on the water, we saw a tourist boat that was speeding through the waves trying to get the dolphins to ride the wake. Our guide disapproved of this strongly, and we were instead able to observe the dolphins contributing to their ecosystem, feeding, playing together, etc. It was an incredible experience and I’m so grateful to our guide for teaching us about the wildlife and the beauty of the Everglades. Also, we inadvertently ended up as part of a tour group at the Nike Missile Base on the south side of the Everglades. The guide for that tour was fascinating, telling us about so much history of the base during the Cuban Missile Crisis and pointing out details we wouldn’t have seen before. One quote he said that stuck with me: “You go somewhere like the Grand Canyon, and it shouts at you. But you come to the Everglades–it whispers to you. And the more you learn about it, the louder it will be.” It was very powerful and really allowed me to have a deeper appreciation for and understanding of the Everglades and everything it stands for.

In the end, I’m so, so happy with how the trip turned out. I learned so much that I can apply to my own life. Namely, I was able to practice my photography skills on the wildlife and nature of the Everglades, and I hope to continue this art in my everyday life to eventually become a lifelong hobby. I actually created a photo essay of my trip, selecting the best pictures I got, writing about them, and putting them all together in a way that mimics what you might see in National Geographic (but longer and with more pictures). I am also currently working with my professional mentor to edit the photos, so I’m excited to be getting some experience with that. I’d like to do this kind of thing throughout my life and come up with other creative ways to capture the world around me, such as through video. But aside from what I went to the Everglades to do, I hope that I can have a new appreciation for nature, noticing the small things, listening for “the whispers”. Being in the Everglades really taught me the value of animal life and conservation, and I would be pleased if I could see that translate into how I interact with nature everyday. Ultimately, I wanted a trip that would free me from computer science and the kinds of responsibilities that come with school, and focus on something completely different. I get so wrapped up in school that sometimes, it’s all I think about and have time for, and this trip was such a breath of fresh air, teaching me that there is so much more to the world, I shouldn’t take everything so seriously. I am so grateful I got the opportunity to explore a different interest of mine and learn skills that I can use throughout my entire life.

All of my best pictures are included in the photo essay, but here are a few of my favorites:

Link to my field journal, detailing what every day looked like for me

Link to my photo essay (still in the process of editing the pictures)

South by Southwest

For my STEP signature project, I spent about a week in Austin, Texas attending the annual South by Southwest festival. I went to music industry panels and networking events in the afternoons, and saw the latest up and coming bands at night. This trip provided me with tons of insight for my future career path, as well as amazing spring break memories.


South by Southwest helped me learn so much just in the course of 4 days. I had never really experienced a professional event like that, especially not one combined with a music festival. Seeing all of these people come together in one place to talk about hundreds of different topics made me feel more positive about my future in this career and in the world in general. It was amazing hearing powerful women talk about what can be done to empower themselves and others, amazing hearing about the new technologies that could disrupt the industry in favor of the creators. Nobody was speaking from a place of pessimism – it really felt like there was plenty of opportunity for things to change with the right actions.

Something I really took away from the experience about myself was my confidence and ease of communicating with others. Everyone I spoke to, from music industry professionals to other college students to Lyft drivers, was insanely friendly. Usually you associate this friendliness with the location, but people we spoke to were from all around the world. Although I know a lot of information about the music industry and finance, I’ve never really had it put to the test before. At the UberEats venue on Friday night, I randomly started up a conversation with a venture capitalist from San Diego about the use of blockchain technology in music. He clearly knew more about the subject than I did, partly because it’s his job, but we still had a total exchange of ideas and it wasn’t a competition. This and other interactions made me feel like I was worthy to be in that space, having those conversations. It was an incredible first experience in “the real world”, a world that I’m excited to be truly apart of after graduation.


To add onto more examples of the interactions and experiences I’m discussing, I’ll explain some of the key events that took place during my time at South by Southwest.

The first panel I attended was a keynote conversation between Bozoma Saint John and supermodel Ashley Graham. Saint John has been the chief marketing officer for companies like Pepsi, Apple, and Uber, and she now works for Endeavor. Graham interviewed her about her experiences in the workplace, especially with the perspective of being a woman of color. The main idea I took away from both of them was to feel worthy of being in any position you may find yourself in. In the same vein, they also discussed bringing all of your experiences and emotions to the table, so that you can contribute with all of yourself and not just the pieces that are “work appropriate”. Another female led keynote discussion was with Shirley Manson of Garbage and Lauren Mayberry of CHVRCHES. They talked about their involvement as women in the music business, and a quote that particularly stuck with me came from Manson: “I can take any man that comes my way.” Both of these discussions were eye-opening, but even as the speakers admitted, there’s only so much you can say before you go out there and get stuff done.

Shirley Manson and Lauren Mayberry.

In retrospect, I wish I had done more mentor sessions, but I only got a chance to meet with one person. This was a 15 minute conversation at the Austin Convention Center, where badge holders could speak with a professional in their line of work to learn more from them. My mentor session was with a financial planner from Merrill Lynch who specializes in working with musicians and artists. She told me about the different ways you can take a financial/accounting degree into the music world, and we also discussed personal finance. Although finance plays some role in virtually any job in the music industry, I had never had the opportunity to speak with someone who is employed directly in that line of work. She encouraged me to get any financial certifications possible, such as a CPA, because it would give me an advantage to show that I have more expertise. I felt intimidated on my way out, but her point of view really opened up my eyes about the career possibilities I could have after graduation.

Most of the smaller panels I attended gave me more knowledge about subjects I had vague understanding of. One of these panels was about using blockchain in music, and the panelists discussed both the benefits but also the complications that could arise from using it. I also went to a panel from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Country Music Hall of Fame about what both locations are doing to digitize and preserve historical music artifacts. I’m familiar with this topic more broadly, because my mom is a librarian who specializes in old and rare books. This panel discussed the protection of not only paper materials, but audio and video recordings. They also stressed the importance of providing access and making sure people know to donate their materials instead of throwing them away. My favorite lecture of the whole week was from songwriter Ross Golan, who talked about “song math”. He talked us through music history and how songs came to be what we know them as now. Golan also threw in tips and tricks on what to do with things like melodies, rhythm, and lyrics to make songs more interesting to listen to. Even though I’m not sure if I’ll need to use that information, it was a really fun and informative lecture.

I clearly attended tons of panels and lectures, but what took up half of my time was concerts. Granted, that time was typically from 7pm to 2am the next morning! I’ve been to over 100 concerts in the past decade – it’s typically the most exciting times of my life. South by Southwest provided me with an amazing sneak peek of what’s to come in music. I saw stripped down performances from tons of artists at the NPR Tiny Desk Showcase, DJs like Questlove and Virgil Abloh, and a moshing rap show from Rico Nasty. The biggest highlight was the Ticketmaster showcase at Stubb’s BBQ, with some of my favorite new acts. Lizzo headlined and preached about personal confidence and body positivity, while I was front row having the time of my life.

Lizzo at the Ticketmaster showcase.

South by Southwest really changed my life in a significant way. I had originally planned this trip thinking I would graduate in May, but when I switched my major to accounting, my graduation date pushed back to December. So although I didn’t use the trip to find a full time job or network more intensely, I think I got a great glimpse into the future of the music business and how to position myself within it. It was a way to test myself: to see how I could interact with real professional adults, and to see where I could succeed in the near future. After speaking to many people and expanding my expertise in multiple different areas, I think I passed that test.

Although South by Southwest is over, I can still pull from my experience this past March by getting out to networking events and reaching out online to people that I met. I am already considering taking a trip back to Austin for next year’s event! Regardless of the practical applications, I feel like I am now better positioned for life after graduation simply because of the confidence and understanding I now have because of attending South by Southwest.


I also kept a blog on Medium during my time in Austin.

Imagineering the Magic

Joe Gruber.160

Artistic & Creative Endeavor

For my STEP Signature Project, I took an exclusive backstage tour of many aspects of the Walt Disney Company. I flew out to Los Angeles and spent four days at the Grand California Hotel in Disneyland with an Adventures by Disney tour group. The highlights of this trip included private tours of the Walt Disney Studios, Disney Imagineering, and backstage access to various Disneyland attractions.

Disney has always been a passion of mine. I went into engineering because of Disney Imagineers. I grew up in constant awe and amazement at what the Imagineers created in Walt Disney World. I always knew that was where I wanted to be full time. This trip is one of the only ways people get a chance to see where the Imagineers work. Disney likes to keep their secrets, so they do not host public tours or even photos of where and what the Imagineers are working on. To have this opportunity to see how the Imagineering campus as well as the corporate headquarters of all of the Disney Company was incredibly transformative and eye opening.

Many people argue that seeing Disney behind the scenes ruins the magic. I disagree… I believe after seeing the hard work and engineering marvels that go on backstage that the true magic is in the engineering of it all. It takes a huge multidisciplinary team to take on every project that Disney parks is working on all over the world, and at any moment Disney could be working on dozens of very different and major projects. Moreover, the standard the Disney holds their Imagineers to in on a different level. They refuse to cut corners or miss any small detail. I knew a lot about Imagineering before I went on this trip, but to be able to visit their campus and talk to Imagineers was as a priceless experience that is helping motivate me to work hard to achieve my ultimate goal.

The first part of this tour was a tour of the Walt Disney Studios. This studio is a closed lot, so it is not open to public tours and Adventures by Disney is the only group allowed inside the gates. This was an incredible tour as it contained so much Disney history. Walt Disney himself aided in the construction of the Studios as well as worked on many of his original classics in there. We also got a chance to see the corporate headquarters where all the business decisions for the Walt Disney Company are made. We also were able to tour some of the Disney Archives and see some of the classic Disney Park memorabilia that the early Imagineers worked on. This was a very cool part of the trip because I was able to see some of the animatronics and props from when I was a kid that are no longer in the parks. We finished this tour with a lunch at the Studios Commissary which strangely was one of the coolest parts of this tour for me. As I sat amid dozens of Disney employees all eating the same lunch in a place where Walt himself would eat up until his death, I felt moved and inspired to make sure that it wasn’t my last lunch there.

Next, the coolest part of the whole tour for me was the guided tour of Walt Disney Imagineering. As we pulled into the campus, I could hardly contain my excitement. It was a dream come true for me to be pulling next to building 1401 in Burbank. As we got off the bus we met the two Imagineers who would be showing us around their campus. We were told repeatedly not to take our phones out at all the whole time we were there because they did not want any pictures being taken to preserve the magic as they said. Only our guides were allowed to take photos of us in approved locations. I geeked out a little there knowing that I would get to see things that Disney did not want anyone else seeing.

The first thing we saw on this tour was the actual scale model of the new Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge coming to Disneyland in June. I’ve seen pictures of this model from press releases, but I was shocked at how massive it was in person. The detail in the Styrofoam model was unreal to me. Also, they said they worked on this model for a year(!) They also displayed some of the new animatronics that would be in this land and describes some of the engineering advancements to them. I had the opportunity to talk to the Imagineers about this project and I learned so much about the typical project timelines for their major and minor projects. Next we got to go in to their modeling room where they made clay models for the animatronics and statues in attractions.  One of the walls of the room was full of busts of every US presidents head that were used in the modeling for the Hall of Presidents in Walt Disney World, which was breathtaking to see. This room had busts of just about every animatronic from every attraction I could think of, from Dick Van Dyke, to JFK, to pirates from Pirates of the Caribbean! This room was a definite highlight for me. We went on to see a few other rooms including where they mix the sounds of on attractions where the took us on a virtual ride through of an attraction in Tokyo Disneyland with awesome surround sound (which the Disney company actually invented). Like all things at Disney, this tour ended with a visit to the Imagineering gift shop which provided me with some great souvenirs.

On the final day of our tour, we were taken backstage on many attractions to see how they do maintance on the ride vehicles and how they monitor any problems on the attractions. This was very interested as I was able to see the engineering of these complex vehicles up close and personal. The first attraction we saw was Indiana Jones Adventure. The ride vehicle for this attraction as designed completely by Imagineers and is very unique. The vehicle looks like a massive jeep with hydraulic pumps that allow the top of the vehicle to move in all directions to simulate rough terrain. Next, we went backstage of Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land. The operator of this attraction showed us how they monitor for problems throughout the day and how they can fix any problem that occurs on the track or a vehicle without having to shut the whole attraction down. This was very interesting to me as it showed how much Disney cared about guests’ experience when in the park and how they are always trying to fix any encountered problems as quickly as possible. We also got a backstage view of Soarin’ in Disney California Adventure and a private tour of Walt Disney’s apartment above the fire station in Disneyland.

Being able to take a walk back in Walt’s shoes as well as see what current Imagineers are working on was a truly life changing experience. It gave me, an already massive fan of the parks, a whole new level of appreciation and respect for all that the company does. It really is a company unlike any other. Yes, their ultimate goal like most businesses is to make money; however, they really do value their guests and want to constantly push boundaries and provide new experiences. Walt Disney said, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” I am passionate about the work that Imagineers do and am going to keep working my hardest to make my dream a reality.

Our Imagineering tour guide told us that he is the creative lead on a new attraction in Tokyo Disneyland. This is the first time he led a project and he said even though it is not the fastest or coolest attraction Disney has to offer, it means so much to him to see something he was passionate about become a reality in the Disney parks. This was very moving to me, because that has always been my dream. I want to see a project through from it just being an idea in my head to the grand opening in a Disney Park. I felt the pride and passion my tour guide felt and I am making it my mission to have the same feeling for myself one day. Thank you to STEP for allowing me to live out one of my dreams and giving me more motivation to pursue my dreams and one day become an Imagineer.

Lost & Found Exhibition

Name: Lost & Found Exhibition
Type of Project: Artistic and Creative Endeavor

My STEP Signature Project is an artistic Exhibition featuring artworks from different ethnic groups raising the awareness of cultural diversity and individual diversity. There are in total of more than 20 artists’ artwork involved in the exhibition.

According to my researches of the overall theme of the exhibition, my initial understanding of diversity can be narrow down to the statement as following: We can’t decide what other people think of us, but we can adjust our own thoughts about who we are and where we are and what we are through different lenses. All of the artists have their own definition of “diversity” and through all of the artwork, you will see how they define “diversity”. I have a lot of friends who know exactly who they are and where they are in terms of long -term goals. But if you are not that kind of person, it’s okay. Because as Henry David Thoreau once said, “Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves”.

I still believe my statement deeply in my heart and I feel so grateful that I am able to influence so many people whether it is people who I know of or  people I have never met before to actually take 20 minutes to do nothing but concentrate on artists’ representation of diversity and left thoughtful notes on the interactive board of the exhibition. I knew there are people who hold different opinions than I do. By holding this exhibition, I am able to hear from different ethnic groups where I could have not heard from my own friend circle.

The experience of holding this exhibition not only opened up my overall perception of diversity but also trained my professional skills as an arts management student. I was constantly having conversations with operation teams of OHIO Union. We started to meet about 3 or 5 times before the event start.  There are of course many difficulties and limitations to hold an exhibition in Ohio Union. Luckily, with the help of Ohio Union, I was able to overcome and adjust all of them   Additionally, I am impressed about how supportive and efficient the operation teams are about the implementations of all the installations and decorations.

Additionally, I also called help from the organization I founded three years ago named Chinese Photography & Image Organization. People from the organization are really supportive and dedicated, even sacrificed a lot of their own personal time to help set up and run the operation terms with me. Through this exhibition, I am able to see the power of teamwork.

For the mentality wise, I am able to open up my mind and see topics from others’ lenses. For my professional path stance, I am able to curate an exhibition start from zero! The success of this exhibition helps me knew a lot of artists from OSU as well as the entire Columbus area. This exhibit is not only a project on the resume but also my confidence and basic before I do something even more exciting!

And here is the video of the exhibition: https://v.qq.com/x/page/n0844hy78hf.html