BOONE, N.C. — A few years ago, Joe Graber ’20 — hammer in his hand — was working in construction and unsure of what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Now, he is building toward a Master of Science degree in computer science through the Accelerated Admission program at Appalachian State University — and has found his place as a student mentor and leader.
Raised in Tryon, Graber is the eighth of 11 children. Neither of his parents, nor most of his siblings, graduated from high school. While Graber did earn a high school diploma, he said he was not a strong student and was not accepted into a four-year university when he initially applied — so he joined his father in the construction trade.
Working full time was eye-opening for Graber, he said. “When I was in high school, I really didn’t understand how hard my family had to work for the money we spent. I now have a better perspective,” he shared.
Meanwhile, one of Graber’s younger brothers graduated from college and began pursuing a Ph.D. in physical therapy, which Graber said inspired him to continue his own education. When he learned that nearby Isothermal Community College (ICC) was a participant in the North Carolina Comprehensive Articulation Agreement (CAA) — which guarantees students admission into any of the 16 University of North Carolina System higher education institutions upon completion of an associate degree — Graber said he applied that very day.
Becoming a Mountaineer
After earning an Associate of Science at ICC, Graber enrolled at App State, through which he earned his Bachelor of Science in computer science in 2020. During orientation, Graber met Dr. Rahman Tashakkori, App State’s Lowe’s Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and chair of the Department of Computer Science (CS), who he said has been an inspiration and mentor to him ever since.
“Dr. Tashakkori believed I could learn computer science — better than I believed so myself,” Graber shared. “He took me under his wing and inspired me to improve as a problem-solver.”
When they first met, Tashakkori encouraged Graber to apply for the National Science Foundation-supported S-STEM Program at App State, which provides financial scholarships to academically talented students in computer science and mathematics and fosters collaborations between students, faculty and the community.
Graber, who is now a team leader in S-STEM, said he feels lucky to be a part of the program, which includes weekly meetings, study sessions and team research projects. “The emphasis is not on what you build but what you learn through building it. The program provides community and develops us as students and as humans,” Graber said.
His participation in S-STEM also helped Graber assimilate as a transfer student, he said. “I was 25 years old when I started at App State, and it was difficult for me to connect with other students. S-STEM put me in contact with graduate students and people with the same interests as mine, and that is when I began to feel like a part of Appalachian.”
During his second semester at App State, Graber began working as a research assistant in the CS research lab, where he oversees a variety of student projects.
“Joe knows the ins and outs of projects and is able to do multiple tasks — from software development to hardware setup," Tashakkori said. "He is a great mentor and role model, and a good member of the computer science family who is always available to help his peers.”
In addition to helping others with research in the lab, Graber is involved in the BeeMon (beehive monitoring) research project — a multiyear effort to develop tools to collect and analyze data used by beekeepers. Graber is working on improving the accuracy of the software that counts bees as they enter and exit their hive — a key tool for monitoring the health and activity of bee colonies.
“It has been a great learning experience. My classwork gives me a basis for what I do in BeeMon and then I learn by doing, which is very effective for me. I’ve also found out a lot about bees in this project — something I didn’t expect to do in computer science,” Graber said.
During his senior seminar course, Graber said Dr. James Wilkes, professor of computer science, taught him to look at the industry in different ways, examining ethical and social impacts of technology on society.
“Opportunities abound for our computer science students, especially for those like Joe, who have a diverse background and experience to support their technical knowledge,” Wilkes said.
Graber is on track to complete his master’s degree in spring 2022.
What do you think?
Share your feedback on this story.
About the Department of Computer Science
Appalachian’s Department of Computer Science provides a rigorous, high-quality education that prepares students for the computing industry or graduate education. It offers a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science, which is accredited by the Computing Accreditation Commission of ABET, and a Master of Science degree in computer science. Learn more at https://compsci.appstate.edu.
About the College of Arts and Sciences
The College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) at Appalachian State University is home to 17 academic departments, two centers and one residential college. These units span the humanities and the social, mathematical and natural sciences. CAS aims to develop a distinctive identity built upon our university's strengths, traditions and unique location. The college’s values lie not only in service to the university and local community, but through inspiring, training, educating and sustaining the development of its students as global citizens. More than 6,400 student majors are enrolled in the college. As the college is also largely responsible for implementing App State’s general education curriculum, it is heavily involved in the education of all students at the university, including those pursuing majors in other colleges. Learn more at https://cas.appstate.edu.
About Transfer Admissions and Engagement
Transfer Admissions and Engagement at Appalachian State University supports students through all stages of their transfer journey, including admission counseling and pretransfer advising, credit evaluation, transitional assistance as they begin at App State and through involvement and retention efforts during their App State education. The office serves undergraduate transfer students studying on the main campus in Boone as well as App State Online students who complete their classes fully online or at an off-site location. The services and resources provided by Transfer Admissions and Engagement ensure the university’s transfer student population finds academic and social success at App State. Learn more at https://transfer.appstate.edu.
About Appalachian State University
As the premier public undergraduate institution in the state of North Carolina, Appalachian State University prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The Appalachian Experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and to embrace diversity and difference. Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Appalachian is one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina System. Appalachian enrolls more than 20,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.