Yoni Rubenstein likes solving problems. So, after he had run out of math courses to take at HCC, he created his own.
This semester, his last at HCC, Rubenstein is taking three independent study courses in advanced math that would make most people's heads spin: Abstract Algebra, Partial Differential Equations, and Differential Geometry. That's in addition to two other classes -- Java programming II and Physics II.
"I really wanted to continue studying math," he says.
Next month, the 21-year-old Longmeadow resident will graduate from HCC with high honors, a 3.95 GPA, and associate degrees in both mathematics and computer science. He will also be honored May 9 at the State House in Boston as one of the "29 Who Shine," an annual event that recognizes one student from each of the 29 public colleges and universities in Massachusetts.
HCC English professor Patricia Sullivan will also be recognized at the State House that day as his mentor. Rubenstein took Sullivan's English 101 class during his first semester at HCC.
"She helped me grow both as a writer and as a person a lot," he says. "We've stayed in contact. Her class and our friendship has had the biggest impact on me of all the teachers here."
"Yoni is indeed one special young man," says Sullivan, who has been teaching at HCC for more than 30 years. "I will always remember him as the brightest student I've ever had."
Rubenstein entered HCC as a high school senior through the Gateway to College program, and he continues to be grateful for that opportunity. He returns frequently to the Gateway classrooms as a mentor to current students.
"High school just wasn't the right place for me, and I decided I definitely wanted to continue my education," he says. "Gateway is great for a variety of reasons. It allows people to get high school diplomas who otherwise wouldn't be able to get them. The people who work there were really amazing. It was just a nice environment. It definitely helped me grow."
Rubenstein started at HCC thinking that he wanted to go to medical school, but wound up taking a year off as he reconsidered his path. During his sabbatical, he worked for a computer startup company called Image Insight, building programs that turn cell phone cameras into radiation detectors.
"I thought, oh, I like programming and I like math, so I'm going to do that," he says. "I came back and switched my major. It definitely helped me having a direction. Since then it's been a lot less challenging."
Nevertheless, the challenge of solving problems appeals to him, especially as it relates to computer science and math.
"With programming, you get to build your own ... whatever," he says. "For example, with games, I can build these worlds you can walk around in. I've never been artsy or musically talented, so this is a way I can express my creativity, by doing what I'm good at."
Math too can be creative, but "not at the lower levels," he says. "In more advanced math, the problems that I'm working on require much more creativity and using a variety of different tools to solve."
Last spring, he gave a presentation at the annual Undergraduate Research Conference at the University of Massachusetts. His project was "2.5-D Maze Generation and Navigation."
"Here," he said, during a recent demonstration on his laptop, "you can kind of walk around in this 3-D maze. It's really 2.5-D, but I used math to make it look 3-D without using what's called a 3-D library. A 3-D library basically does all the math for you."
Off campus, Rubenstein still works part time for Insight and has volunteered in the past at Rachel's Table, a nonprofit in Springfield that feeds hungry people. At HCC, he is a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society and the HCC STEM Club and has worked as a mentor for HCC's STEM Summer Academy.
Next fall, he will continue to study computer science and math at Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He hopes to work one day as a computer programmer for another startup company.
That, at least, shouldn't be a problem.
PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Left) Yoni Rubenstein is HCC's "29 Who Shine" award winner for 2016. (Right) HCC English professor Patricia Sullivan talks to a student before class.