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One Small Step for Degree, One Giant Leap for Career

A simple degree upgrade led graphic designer Orlando Bustos to an internship with NASA and a job with Arcata Associates.

People  |  Nov 1, 2018  |  By Nicole Rupersburg
Orlando Bustos

Through a unique internship program with UNLV, graphic design alumnus Orlando Bustos worked in NASA's Huntsville, Alabama. (Photo courtesy of Marissa Owens)

As a graphic design student, you might expect to get a foot in the door with a magazine or advertising agency, maybe even a tech firm … but NASA?

Orlando Bustos launched his design career by landing a unique internship through UNLV.

It was 2013. Bustos, a senior at the time, had been working on his bachelor of arts degree at UNLV with an emphasis in graphic design when a new program caught his attention. The bachelor of science in graphic design and media integrated elements of digital media, interface design, 3-D imaging, animation, and other areas of graphic design that were not emphasized in the B.A. degree that was being phased out.

Although he was on track to graduate that year, Bustos switched to the new program, even though it meant an additional year of classes.

“I thought the new classes UNLV would offer — like 3-D rendering, web design, and designing for touchscreen tablets — would be more beneficial to my career, so I took the opportunity to learn more,” Bustos said.

He added one more task to his new final year’s to-do list: get an internship. And among the companies he could intern with was NASA.

Helga Watkins, then the acting director of the fine arts department, reached out to him about the opportunity to work for the prestigious space research organization. But there was one catch: Bustos would have to relocate to Huntsville, Alabama.

Because it was his final year, many of Bustos’ classes were studio-based, requiring him to be physically present. But because the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to intern at NASA was too good to pass up, Bustos convinced his professors to let him finish his classwork remotely.

“The whole department was incredibly helpful and supportive,” Bustos said. “They allowed me to finish my classes online and report back to my professors.”

With that, Bustos jetted off to Huntsville as an intern in the Mentor-Protégé Program (MPP) that had recently formed between UNLV and Teledyne Brown Engineering, a NASA contractor. His mission: help redesign training materials used in NASA’s International Space Station program.

“A lot of the training that NASA supplies to the International Space Station came in the form in PowerPoint and Word documents — just black text on a white background and a lot of charts to read,” Bustos said. “Teledyne's goal was to make the training more interactive so that it could be self-taught.”

The MPP initially called for UNLV computer science interns. But representatives from Teledyne and their Las Vegas-based subcontractor Arcata Associates soon realized that if the training was to become more interactive, a significant visual component would be necessary. So the UNLV College of Engineering got together with the College of Fine Arts to send an interdisciplinary team to Alabama.

Bustos was joined by UNLV undergraduate Tom Le, a computer science major, and postdoctoral scholar Marissa Owens from UNLV’s College of Education. Owens guided the team’s work from an education and e-learning perspective, outlining all of the training content; Le handled the programming; and Bustos created all the associated graphics, video, photography, animation, and other media. The team created visually-driven, interactive, and self-contained materials that users could download and review any time of day or night, engaging in self-guided study instead of sitting in a classroom for eight hours a day.

Thanks in part to the team’s great work, the MPP was recognized with two NASA awards: a NASA Mentor-Protégé Program Participation Award and a Small Business Subcontractor Excellence Award.

The recognition led to UNLV becoming an official subcontractor to Teledyne as well as a new contract between UNLV and Lockheed Martin. It also led to Arcata CEO Tim Wong hiring Bustos full time in 2015, before the NASA internship ended.

“The program evolved into something much bigger than it was initially intended to, and Tim Wong had a lot to do with that,” Bustos said.

Bustos is still a multimedia designer with Arcata Associates, but he’s remained in Huntsville, where he continues working on training materials and other multimedia projects to support the International Space Station.

“Because UNLV taught me a little bit of everything, I’ve been handling every aspect of training materials — animation, video editing, TV production, conferences, photography, worksheets — adding anything I feel is beneficial,” Bustos said. “If I hadn’t made that degree switch, I’d probably be a big step or two behind where I’m at now.”