by Sarah Goraya
(btw, shoutout to Carolyn Glasener, my fellow nominee!! Loved our joint heart attacks when Will tried to convince us that our interviews were a day earlier than they actually were.)
As a junior on our resident robotics team, The Fighting Unicorns, which is a part of the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), I was recently nominated as a semi-finalist for the Dean’s List Award. The nomination involved one of our mentors submitting an essay talking about us and what we had done for the team. According to FIRST’s website:
“The students who earn FIRST Dean’s List Award status as a Semi-Finalists, Finalist or Winner, are great examples of student leaders who have led their Teams and communities to increased awareness for FIRST and its mission. These students have also achieved personal technical expertise and accomplishment. It is the intention of FIRST that these individuals will continue on, post-Award, as great leaders, student alumni, and advocates of FIRST.
Prestigious colleges have expressed great interest in meeting FIRST Dean’s List’s Award winners and FIRST hopes that each Team will take advantage of the opportunity to nominate the most qualified students as FIRST Dean’s List Nominees!”
10 students from FIRST teams around the world are chosen to receive it. It’s arguably the most prestigious award that an individual could earn at competition, and it’s also a great plug to universities.
No pressure, right?
Cut to me at midnight the night before my phone interview (in place of the in-person interview we would have normally had at our regional competition, which got cancelled). I can’t sleep. Instead, I am completely freaking out. This feels like the first chance I have had to compete for something I am genuinely passionate about, but I am struck by how inferior I feel to my vision of what a Dean’s List winner is supposed to be. I am not skilled enough to design build program and wire an entire robot by myself. I have not started a robotics club for underprivileged kids. I have not presented the ideals of FIRST to some big politician. I have not gotten us Google as a sponsor.
What have I done?
The innocent, loving corner of my brain chided me to believe that I somehow deserved this nomination, I deserved to try to win. But how? Robotics was not my life. It was hugely important to me, but so were all the other extracurriculars I did. Was I not dedicated enough?
I didn’t know what to do. And when that happens, I write.
I think I developed this habit in middle school. Whenever I felt overcome by emotions, when I couldn’t function, I would just write. Get my thoughts, my beliefs, and my dreams out there, and rely on the faith that I would come to some resolution through it. I would have no filter, no judgement, and work through what I was feeling to try to convince myself that I was okay.
And lo and behold, while frantically scrawling that night—a lightbulb. What if my being involved in so many things was what made me different? Robotics wasn’t my life, but what if how I integrated it into all of the other things I did and the people I interacted with was what made my experience special? And what if my passion for oddly lyrical writing could actually give me a unique perspective on how to talk about myself during the interview?
Without further ado, here is the transcript (slightly edited for not-middle-of the-night-writing sense) of the scribbling I did on the worn notepad on my bedside table:
I am scared. I am scared I won’t say the right things. I need to be passionate, committed, technically skilled, a leader for others around me. I am scared I won’t be unique.
Imagine that I am the only person in the world with those things in my essay. I am the only person in the world with my essay. I will tell the truth. I will be authentic. I will be myself because I love robotics – building, creating from nothing, the value of teamwork, the value of confronting the challenges and the hurt and the awkward. In three years I have led design and fabrication. I am the most well-versed design member of my team, and most of that is self-taught. I had to discover how and when I felt comfortable asking for help because I naturally want to be self-sufficient, I naturally should be able to figure it out on my own. A large part of the skill has come from this resourcefulness I’ve taken advantage of. On the other hand, I have learned how I owe it to myself to ask for help. I have a value, I have a place on this team and I deserve to ask from it as much as I give to it.
So I will help the Business lead with her first grants. I will record daily notes of every single meeting so everyone on our small team will be kept up to date. I will review designs from home, send in modified versions to improve upon what a mentor has created, and send them in, and I will feel proud of the pictures of the final part sent back to me. I will stay by a rookie’s side for hours straight, watching as their hands on the mill go from guided by mine, to halting steps, to deft switches and turns. I will ask for questions and admit my mistakes and explain the unnecessary so no rookie feels the hesitance to inquire that I came into FRC harboring.
I will stand at the controls at science fairs and schools, dropping cubes and shooting balls for every shriek of delight. I will kneel down to explain pistons and motors and machining to toddlers at baseball games and libraries, because in a world where children’s questions are brushed aside and ignored, it’s my team and I who see the glimmer of understanding, of learning, in their eyes when for once, they can ask about anything.
On Drive Team, I began as Human Player. My first match, I frantically tried to figure out where the hatches went just as the match was starting. Having succeeded, I immediately became way too excited and put two in at the same time, clogging the opening. My side was useless for the entire match. Soon though, I became the secret weapon of our strategy, monitoring the time and amount of balls and hatches for release onto the field. At the next competition, I became the Operator, and kept cool when our robot would not work. I maneuvered the most dangerous mechanism we had competed with. The pride of seeing heads turn when you wheeled your robot down the pit, the uncontainable joy and relief when you saw your rocket blast off, the lack of any sad moment when your team immediately came together to comfort each other when you lost… We joked and teared up and negotiated and died laughing, and drove our creation fiercely because we were in it to win, but what’s the point of winning if you don’t have any fun?
Because of FRC I will wear my unicorn shirt with my sawdust-covered jeans, tie pink and blue ribbons into my hair, and tie my worn closed-toe sneakers with hands covered in cuts from who knows what project. Every student at my school sees I am an engineer who stares at computer screens for hours tweaking a design, or huddles in the shop jumping from one machine to the next to create the perfect driveplate. But because of FRC when they see I am an engineer, they see that I am an unashamed, eloquent leader who has learned how to deal with the highest highs and the lowest lows. And every little girl sees that I am an engineer, that a group of girls just like her built a 100-pound metal behemoth—and we know the purpose of every single screw.
I am not just posting this to share my love for robotics, and my love for my team. Am I trying to get *you* to join the team next year? Yes. But I am also hoping that you can relate to the endless struggle of feeling as though you are not enough. Detesting yourself for not being the perfect version of ____________. What I learned from doing this, then doing the interview and advancing in the competition is this: if you can present yourself and speak authentically, speak what is true about you, and just share why you love something, that is insanely valuable. Doing a bunch of big projects or collecting lists of big accomplishments mean nothing if they don’t mean anything to you. On the other hand, the smallest, most mundane things turn into everything if they have made you better or stronger as a person.
After signing up to become a Unicorn, I encourage you to evaluate what you actually like about the things you do, and why. Don’t be afraid to feel proud of yourself. And for any competition, any interview, any conversation—highlight that. You will be successful, and feel at peace.