M.S. in Computer Science
Bridge graduate and master’s candidate
Andres Zarta’s path to NYU Tandon was far from linear, but it's hard not to think that his entry into its computer science master’s program was almost preordained. He is now, he says, exactly where he wants to be.
A native of Bogota, Colombia, Zarta excelled in high school classes like calculus and physics but grew up hoping to be part of the entertainment industry. “I felt a call to express myself creatively and a desire to elicit powerful feelings in others,’ he says. “Maybe, deep down, there was also a desire to discover a new way of connecting with the world.”
Although his teachers urged him to pursue a STEM-related career such as engineering or economics, when the time came to choose a college, his thoughts turned immediately to studying the arts at NYU. Despite the financial challenge it posed to his parents — it was, he explains, a time when the Colombian peso was particularly weak — he entered Tisch to earn a bachelor’s degree in film and television production.
“I knew they treated film as a serious field of study, which is what I wanted,” he recalls. “I was in for something of a shock, though. Back in Bogota, I had been considered a top student, but in New York, I was a small fish in a very big pond.” Still, Zarta enjoyed the challenge of his classes, forged a supportive network of aspiring fellow producers who inspired him to push himself artistically, and graduated in 2016, eager to put his creativity and new skills to use in his native country. “Tisch awakened my sensibilities,’ he says. “Seeing and appreciating films and other forms of art now helps me see and appreciate people better.”
In Colombia, Zarta found jobs as a freelance producer on various projects, and in 2017 he got his first big break, working on the set of the popular streaming telenova La reina del flow (“The Queen of Flow”), a tale of murder, wrongful imprisonment, and revenge, set against the backdrop of Medellín’s seedy reggaeton music industry. While he was thrilled to have finally landed an assistant director’s credit on a big-budget hit, he soon found himself growing discontented. Tasked with wrangling crowds of extras and recently diagnosed with a thyroid condition that left him continually worn out, he began questioning his life choices. Was this worth the sacrifices his parents had made to send him to school? Was this truly the highest and best use of his talents? “Years later, I came to understand that those feelings stemmed from the fact that while film and TV were true passions of mine, my role in them lacked a crucial ingredient. My real talent, skill, and ability to make an impact were clearly somewhere else.”.
Luckily, Zarta found a more fulfilling outlet as a freelance sound editor for Cuonda, a Spanish-language podcast company that had been launched by the Tow Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York. There he worked on podcasts on a variety of topics, from travel to current events to pop culture. Thanks to a succession of freelance jobs in post-production, he had already gained some expertise in working with entertainment software, and at Cuonda, a podcast about Microsoft Spain's efforts to increase the adoption of AI at the corporate level further captured his imagination.
That burgeoning interest in tech grew even stronger when he was contacted by a fellow Tisch alum who was embarking on a research project for a tech giant focused on how artificial intelligence and digital tools could be harnessed for use on film sets. Needing someone who had been active in the Colombian entertainment industry, she asked Zarta to collaborate with her. Excited by the prospect, he helped conduct dozens of interviews and gradually realized that he wanted to develop digital tools himself. (Concurrently, he took on a teaching post at a school in the countryside of Bogota, and as a longtime devotee of games, he began using them as teaching aids.)
His then-girlfriend, Brittany (whom he has since married), encouraged him to think about innovative ways to leverage his many natural talents, varied interests, understanding of technology, and desire to do impactful work. Perhaps his unique background could be an asset in forging an entirely new career, she suggested, planting a seed in Zarta’s mind that quickly took root.
After delving into programming on platforms like Coursera and EdX, in the spring of 2021 he made the leap to NYU Tandon’s Bridge Program, an online initiative aimed at preparing students with non-technical backgrounds to develop the skills needed to undertake a STEM master’s degree. After a grueling 17 weeks of completing the equivalent of 400 hours of course work covering such topics as Programming, Object Oriented Design, Discrete Math, Data Structures and Algorithms, Operating Systems, and Computer Networks, he earned a certificate of distinction, marking him as one of the top students in the cohort.
“I was happy to discover that after many years without touching a math textbook, I still grasped the concepts and easily regained the rhythm of learning highly technical subjects,” he says. “I particularly enjoyed programming because it’s both a puzzle you have to crack and a digital canvas to express the intellectual, systematic, and logical part of yourself.”
In September 2022 he will be entering Tandon’s master’s program in computer science. He is particularly excited to study at the Game Innovation Lab under Professor Julian Togelius, who is exploring the symbiotic relationship between video and digital games and AI. “I have skills as a storyteller, and I’ve always been a gaming advocate, so I’d ultimately like to combine those characteristics to democratize access and participation in technology,” Zarta explains. “I’m especially committed to helping Colombians reach a higher degree of digital literacy to achieve authentic democratic participation in the globalized digital environment. I want to use my unique outlook as a Latino immigrant programmer to make sure that people like me can have a voice in the construction of the global algorithmic realities that will affect us all in the future.”
He is also eager to reconnect with old classmates who remained in New York and says; “I have immense gratitude for the opportunity that NYU gave me to prove to myself and others that I deserved a second chance at higher education. I truly believe that programs like the Bridge are the key to tackling the big challenge of preparing the workforce of the future. There is a large pool of real talent that comes from diverse, non-traditional backgrounds such as mine, and that is a talent that should not be wasted.”