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Ready for the Real World?

With nonprofit organization Treasure Hacks, mathematics-computer science major Brandon Joe aims to help students develop soft skills through games

Headshot of Brandon Joe in front of green plant
Second-year UC San Diego student Brandon Joe founded Treasure Hacks, a nonprofit organization that aims to help students between the ages of 16 and 22 develop soft skills like teamwork, adaptability, problem-solving and communication. (Photos courtesy of Treasure Hacks)

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Breaking the ice when joining an existing conversation. Thinking clearly in a fast-paced professional environment. Pitching an idea or concept to industry executives.

Navigating these scenarios requires “soft skills” like teamwork, adaptability, problem-solving and communication that help employees excel in the workplace and effortlessly interact with their colleagues. But how can you learn these skills before you transition from an academic setting to the real world—skills that will help you land the job or distinguish yourself from your peers?

This is a question that second year UC San Diego student Brandon Joe is working to answer as he expands Treasure Hacks, a nonprofit organization he founded in 2021 alongside two classmates in Orange County, California, after the COVID-19 pandemic upended their traditional high school experience.

What began as a platform for hosting virtual hackathons—which brought together aspiring programmers from around the world to collaborate on projects with the guidance of seasoned educators—has evolved into something more.

Now, Treasure Hacks is a growing community of individuals who are working to complement the academic system by helping high school and undergraduate students—primarily those between the ages of 16 and 22—grow their interpersonal skills. They’re accomplishing this in part by “gamifying” soft skills—developing games and applications that help students learn how to grow and implement these skills in a fun and engaging way.

Brandon Joe speaks in front of screen that says
During a Treasure Hacks event, Brandon Joe talks to students about how to make an effective pitch.

Why the change in mission? Through the phone calls, pitches and presentations involved in coordinating hackathons, Joe and his co-founders unintentionally developed many of these practical soft skills—and noticed what a difference they made in their lives.

“I realized that I could turn this into my opportunity to make an impact now, instead of 10 years from now,” said Joe, a mathematics-computer science major in Revelle College. “We saw how much these skills changed our lives, and we want to help other students thrive in real-world settings. Between social media and the pandemic, Generation Z has had fewer opportunities to interact with people face-to-face and create these bonds. People want to see that you’re a human being and not just an academic machine.” 

Driven by his desire to give back to the community around him, Joe has his sights set on hosting events and seminars that will help students develop soft skills and provide them with opportunities to hear from industry leaders on topics like financial literacy, presenting and networking.

"I realized that I could turn this into my opportunity to make an impact now, instead of 10 years from now."
Brandon Joe

The first of these events will take place on Feb. 17, when Treasure Hacks will host approximately 200 high school and undergraduate students for a free Soft Skill Seminar sponsored in part by the UC San Diego Division of Extended Studies and held at its La Jolla campus. With the goal of serving the critical lifelong learning and skill development needs of individuals, organizations and the community, Extended Studies is a natural fit for an event of this kind.

Through a full day of workshops, free food and gamified learning exercises like musical tables, slide deck roulette and a pitch competition with prizes donated by gaming gear company HyperX, the Soft Skill Seminar aims to help students bridge the gap from college to industry—and have fun while doing it.

Though Joe and his Treasure Hacks co-founders, Ethan Wang and Ethan Kosaki, went on to attend three different universities across California after graduating from high school, they’ve continued to work together to grow the organization.

At UC San Diego, Joe has found a vast array of resources, connections and opportunities that have helped make this possible. He says one of the main things that first attracted him to UC San Diego was The Basement, the student-focused incubation space in the state-of-the-art Design & Innovation Building—a campus resource that nurtures entrepreneurship. Last year, Joe applied and was accepted to The Basement’s Blackstone LaunchPad, which has provided him with direct access to funding sources, subject-area experts, a prototyping lab and many more opportunities to help him carve a path forward for Treasure Hacks and prepare for success in tomorrow’s workforce.

Through the LaunchPad, which is the signature program of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation, Joe also has been paired with an inspiring mentor: DeLinda Forsythe, CEO and founder of Innovative Commercial Environments (ICE), who he says is always willing to help him as he faces the various challenges that come with running an organization while a full-time student.

“The Design & Innovation Building is fantastic,” said Joe, adding that he considers it a home away from home. “The people in that community are like a family, and you can talk to anyone—even strike up a conversation in an elevator. It’s truly unique, and it has contributed to my growth.”

Joe also has connected with various campus organizations like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the Business Council of UC San Diego, the National Society of Black Engineers and others that are helping support the upcoming seminar. Going forward, his goal is to host similar events in underserved communities and to coach other students to host Treasure Hacks workshops in locations outside of Southern California.

For Joe, promoting communication and empathy skills among his peers is something he finds personally fulfilling.

“For members of Gen Z like me, there’s a lot of emphasis on finding purpose in addition to a successful career,” Joe said. “That’s what I hope to achieve through Treasure Hacks.”

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