Mitch Zakocs has taken a roll-up-your-sleeves attitude toward the pandemic disruptions that have afflicted his senior year at Mountain Pointe High School.
“Just try to stay busy,” the Ahwatukee teen said. “It’s not worth it to give up an entire year of work. I have plenty of friends who haven’t done any schoolwork in months, and their entire workflow and motivation have been completely killed for college. You have to stay in that flow throughout the downtime or it’s very easy to completely mess up your mindset for future years.”
Last week, Mitch’s immediate future got a whole lot brighter when he was named one of 20 Arizona seniors who have won a prestigious Flinn Scholarship, which covers all four years of tuition and other expenses at one of Arizona’s three state universities and includes an array of other perks, including two learning stints abroad and mentorship and meetings with scores of business and cultural leaders.
Mitch also is one of two Tempe Union High School District recipients this year – the other is a senior at Tempe High. Tempe Union and Gilbert Public Schools were the only two districts to have more than one Flinn Scholar this year while BASIS Ahwatukee is one of only two individual schools with more than one Flinn Scholar.
The son of Nikki and Justin Zakocs, who moved to Ahwatukee three years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina, Mitch is heading to Arizona State University’s Barrett, The Honors College to study computer science – a logical academic choice for someone who says “I’ve been tinkering with computers and electronics my entire life and I’m glad to finally take my interests to a higher level.”
He plans to focus on both software engineering and cybersecurity with an eye toward getting “a job at one of the top-ranking tech companies working on important and complex software.”
“I love working on software that helps and influences tons of people and these companies are the ones creating it,” he explained.
He already is taking steps toward that goal by being involved in ASU’s Pwndevils/Shellphish, which conducts cybersecurity research” and intends once he’s on campus to joins the E.P.I.C.S program at ASU, which stands for Engineering Projects in Community Service.
“They do tons of community-service-based projects related to engineering and computer science that would allow me to use my skills to directly help others,” he said.
Outside of school, two of his three favorite activities reflect his passion for computers. He enjoys programming and tinkering with electronics, and takes a break from cyberworld by building and playing guitars.
“I absolutely love creating projects through programming” he said, and he puts that love to work helping people.
For example, he developed a scraper for car data to gather information on car prices over time for specific models, makes and locations.
He built two Chrome extensions for Mountain Pointe to streamline the attendance process, especially when he and his classmates were in all-virtual learning.
“While I originally created them specifically for my school, they have since spread around the world and I’ve gotten emails from teachers in India, Romania, Canada, and tons of states around the U.S. saying how much they appreciate the work I’ve done,” Mitch said. “The extensions have hit around 3,000 users combined, which is crazy.”
So far, he has built two electric guitars as well as custom keyboards “to make long programming sessions more enjoyable.”
“It’s also just great to have a tool that I tuned perfectly to my preferences,” he said.
Given his passion and his self-discipline, he wasn’t all that phased by having to learn at home.
“I actually really enjoyed online school because of the increased freedom,” he said. “It felt much more independent and self-motivated than in-person school. I also had a lot more downtime due to not having clubs, not having to drive back and forth from school and because of the new virtual learning schedule. I used this time to start some new projects, research new topics I was interested in – mainly computer science topics – and just relax…The only things I truly missed were clubs and being able to easily interact with teachers/classmates.”
He did return to the classroom when campuses reopened, and has noticed “I definitely felt more physically exhausted at the end of the day and I definitely had less free time, but getting some social interaction and being immersed in my classes is pretty nice.”
He also said, “The main thing I noticed was that some teachers absolutely dreaded teaching online. I don’t blame them, but it was fairly obvious for some teachers, and I heard this observation from a lot of my classmates, too. This meant that some classes this year were heavily self-taught.
“I’d imagine that it was extremely hard to switch to this new teaching style on such short notice, especially when some of these teachers have been teaching in a classroom for 20+ years. Now that we’ve been in this environment for over a year, it’s definitely gotten better, but it’s still interesting to think about.”
He frankly admits he is obsessed with computers and has been for most of his life.
“I never found anything else in my life that combined everything I loved: math, linguistics, and incredibly complex logic,” Mitch said, dating his obsession to age 5 or 6, when he had his first access to a computer.
I never stopped programming since then and it wasn’t even a question when it came time to pick a major.
“I believe I was allowed to use it to play a couple of video games or something similar,” he said, but by age 11 he got “a cheap Dell desktop” that “allowed me to start messing with hardware and software without risking somebody else’s computer.
Since then, he’s built a few computers that he could tailor to his needs.
A devoted math scholar who has been active in Mountain Pointe’s Mu Alpha Theta math club chapter and who has participated in numerous math competitions, Mitch also loves learning foreign languages and has developed fluency in Spanish.
“I really didn’t enjoy science until last year,” he added. “Up until then, I’d only taken biology, environmental science, and other “soft” sciences. Last year, I took Honors Chemistry with an absolutely incredible teacher and I found a strong passion for the more complex sciences. I loved all of the formulas and crazy processes involved with chemistry and I’m very excited to take physics in college for this exact reason.”
He was excited and relieved to win a Flinn, stating, “the network and resources that I’ve been given access to are amazing, and I am incredibly excited to see where my future stands in the program.”
“All of the Flinn Scholars that I have talked to in the past have been really great,” Mitch said. “That was another reason that I was excited to get the scholarship; all of the people that I have met in the program have been incredibly personable and motivated and I would love to be friends with any of them.”
“I also have a network built up in Tempe,” he added. “I know some wonderful professors at ASU that I’d love to work with, and they have a ton of research activity in the computer science fields that I enjoy.”
And given his attitude, it’s likely those professors will love to work with him.
That attitude explains how he described an internship he had with a company after a manager saw a project he did on Github.
“I didn’t do it to get hired, I didn’t do it to open opportunities, but I did it because I enjoyed programming and wanted to put my work out there,” he said. “The opportunities came as a side effect, and if you have a true passion for something, that can easily happen. Other than that, I don’t think there’s one secret that will make you successful other than just working hard, staying motivated and getting lucky.”