Any mentor, student or parent can see the benefits FIRST has on the students who participate at all levels. FIRST helps to instill not only technical skills and problem solving, but also an excitement for these critical things in children and adolescents. All you have to do is what a single team, or even a single person through one year in FIRST and you will see that person grow and gain skills that will begin to set them apart from their peers. Being excited about science and technology, tackling a complex problem with a team and learning the tenants of gracious professionalism are all amazing things that make all FIRST students better people.
Looking back on my time as a student in FIRST though, I realize I gained so much more. And I'm not talking about the amazing friends, mentors and experiences I was lucky enough to have (although those were pretty fantastic). I'm graduating from Drexel University in June with a Bachelors in Civil Engineering. I've had three six month internships while at school, and am now applying for full time positions for after graduation. As I am undertaking a job search, polish my resume and start interviewing, I have realized that so many of the skills I have used in my internships, skills I will ultimately use to (hopefully) have a successful career, were obtained back in High School, back when my life was all about FIRST.
If there's one thing I learned as a student in FIRST, it was a passion for science and engineering. Simply put, passion sets you apart. People notice and respect passion when they recognize it in others. Being passionate about what you do, being able to answer the question: "Why did you decide to become an engineer?" makes you memorable. In an interview, in an office or in a classroom, being a passionate person will elevate you above your peers.
You may be thinking, well, I'm passionate about FIRST, or my team, or my favorite robot I've built, but I don't know if I'm passionate about engineering, or about school, or about my job. I know how you feel. It's easy to be passionate about an organization when you have people like Woodie Flowers to look up to, and teammates and mentors who become your family. You can learn though to find things in your school and work life to be just as invested in. Once you've tapped into that passion and emotion once, it's easy to get back there. Being that person who is excited and invested in what they do will make you a better person, a better employee, and most importantly, happier.
Most people have a pretty stereotypical image of an engineer in their minds. Quiet, bookish, maybe a little bit awkward. I've met and worked with those people, we all have, but there is just as much variety in the type of person who becomes an engineer as any other profession. I will say though, a confident young female engineer still seems unusual to people.
I learned how to be confident in FIRST. I learned how to stand up in front of judges and tell them why my team deserved to win an award. I learned how to work in a team, when to take charge and when to defer to others. I learned how to create something I was proud of, take initiative, be brave. I can keep listing things I learned but honestly that gets boring. What all of this amazing learning did though was give me the confidence to tackle any challenge. Oh you think this interview is scary? When I was 15 I was writing and presenting Chairmans for my team. That was scary. I did that. I can do this. And so on. Whenever I start to doubt myself, or feel like I can't do something, I remember everything I accomplished in FIRST. If I could do all that before I was 18, I can definitely handle whatever comes next. I'm not saying I'm going to be the best, or even all that great, at everything I do, but I am going to be able to tackle it head on, with confidence in myself.
Another (untrue) stereotype of engineers is that none of us know how to talk to other human beings. And again, although this is not completely true, being a strong communicator is an undeniable asset that almost every company puts on their list of desirable traits for a potential employee. Having experience in FIRST will more than likely set you up to either be a strong communicator, or at least have improved these skills.
Working with other people can be really tough. Even when you like, love or deeply admire another person, working with them can still present some serious challenges. On my FIRST team I learned how to approach different kinds of people, how people change when they're under stress, but most of all I learned that when you're on a team, you have to be able to communicate with everyone. Most people who know me would say I'm a naturally talkative person, which is true, but talking is not the same thing as communicating. On my team I learned how important it can be to tailor your approach to a conversation depending on the mood and personality of the person you're talking with, and on the situation you're in. I learned not to take things so personally. I learned sometimes you just need to let people be angry. I learned sometimes people just need to rant and other times talking won't fix your problems. I also learned the difference between casual communication among teammates and formal presentation decorum. Conveying information to a judge at a competition was different then explaining your ideas to a mentor in the work room. I can't explain exactly how I learned these differences, these subtle approaches. A change in body language and tone, different vocabulary. No one every wrote out a manual, and yet I did learn these nuances things. Now when I give presentations or work on a team people notice these small things, this awareness and ability to communicate effectively. It doesn't matter whether you're in school, at an internship or home with your roommates, these skills you learn in FIRST will stay with you, and will improve your ability to communicate well into adulthood.
Being Your (Female) Self
This last one is tough. I have to be brutally honest. There are times when being a woman in engineering, and being a young lady in FIRST, really has sucked. It's not fun being the only, or one of just a few women in the room. It's not great to be under estimated, over estimated or just treated differently, and realizing it's because you have two X chromosomes. From the very beginning of my time in FIRST, and still to this day, I feel like I have something to prove. That I have to be not just as good as, but perhaps even better than my male peers. And for a very long time I struggled with acting feminine. If I was too girly then was I setting myself apart even further? But if I denied my love of pink, purple and sparkles was I making things worse? I've always been called "peppy" and "bubbly". I wonder, am I hurting myself by being so openly girly?
We are lucky to be in a time and in a generation where people are becoming more and more open minded about gender roles. But it's still not easy being a woman, much less an extremely feminine woman, in an industry that's still so male centric. I still have doubts and questions about how my gender affects my standing professionally, but I will say that FIRST gave me a pretty ideal picture of what to work towards. When I was in FIRST I saw all girls teams with bright pink robots and team members wearing skirts. They competed on an even playing field with other teams. I never felt like my gender mattered when I was at FIRST competitions. I wasn't being judged on my personality, my team was being judged on our performance. And now that I've volunteered at FIRST events where I've been inside judging rooms, and I've never heard gender be brought up in a judging conversation. To be judged purely on your merits, on your performance, and not by your gender, is an ideal world that unfortunately doesn't exist very much outside FIRST. But being exposed to that world reminds me, there's nothing wrong with wearing a lot of pink.
This blog post was written by Delia Votsch. If you are interested in writing a blog post for FIRST Ladies, please sign up on the schedule.
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