In her 10 years involved with FIRST, Nikki has grown from a shy, awkward young girl to an inspiration. Her troubled past not only made her tough but gave her the drive to mentor and help students regardless of their situation or team affiliation. She's paving the way for girls interested in web developing and coding- often being the only girl in the room and the first girl to hold that job. When not mentoring she is empowering others to be themselves by volunteering as up and coming Master of Ceremonies. No matter what a student is going through or has gone through she never gives up on them and believes that with a little guidance and care anyone can become the best at anything especially in STEM.
What is your FIRST story? (how did you become involved, what is your role now, etc)
Well, when I was in 8th grade I had a very traumatizing couple of experiences that happened to me within a matter of weeks. I had become pretty depressed and it was apparent with my teachers and my peers. That year, I was lucky and had this one amazing science teacher. I would describe her as the closest thing to the real life Ms. Frizzle from magic school bus. She even had an iguana. One day after class she put a flier on my desk for the New Jersey Regional and told me I should go and that I’d get extra credit if I went and brought back 3 things. Even though I had a great grade in the class I couldn’t resist getting extra credit. That day I went home and I convinced my dad to take me to the robotics competition.
I woke up that friday nervous, excited but kind of happy. When I got there I was a bit overwhelmed with what was going on. I was really shy and quite frankly, kind of scared but I saw my hometown team was competing and I knew some of the kids on the team so I talked to them a little bit. After a while I found my friends pushing me to try new things, especially to be the mascot because none of them wanted to do it. I put it on and felt comfortable. I ended up making my way to the mascot pit and quickly became friends with everyone in the suits and costumes. At that point, I was happy for the first time in weeks. After the day was over with I ended up convincing my dad to take me back the next day. A few months later I was at off season competitions as an official member.
10 years later, I’m pretty involved in FIRST. I currently am a mentor on two teams: 1089 (Team Mercury) and 2495 (Hivemind). At FRC events if I am not with my teams I’m probably one of the emcees on the field (You’ll see me in a steampunk outfit). At FLL competitions I am a judge, but I don’t do those often. I’m usually all over the place if I am helping out 1089’s FTC competition they host and on top of that I started helping the Mid Atlantic District Committee with IT, specifically social media and emails. Did I mention I love to volunteer?
Tell us about your job. (Where do you work, what kinds of things are you doing, etc)
I recently worked for the Vitamin Shoppe as an Email/Front End Web Developer just outside of New York City. I use html, css, xsl/xslt and some program specific api to create dynamic and responsive emails. I go between working with down streaming order management systems to fun email marketing campaigns that get sent out to a large amount of our customer base. All of that is a big fancy way of saying I make your emails personalized with your information and adjust sizing and to fit on your computer, phone or tablet.
Who are some of your role models or inspirations?
I don’t have traditional role models. I never looked up to people I have never met before. I tend to find role models and inspiration around me. I look up to a lot of the women in my company. They are VPs, senior level designers. The Vice-President of my department was a mom of two kids and juggles work and a family in a way that makes it look effortless. The senior designer (and the rest of the designers) at my company are go-getters and passionate about what they do.
I also look up to a lot of my friends because they have those qualities. My best friend is a metal shop supervisor at a makerspace in a major city. Another close friend I have is a mechanical engineering grad student. Another is a freelance web designer. While my other best friend is still in school studying physics. Not only do they do all of these things, they all are mentors in FIRST. They do amazing things in and outside of FIRST and inspire me to be the best version of myself. I have been lucky to surround myself with go-getters who don’t let anything get in the way of their dreams.
What advice would you give to a girl considering a career in STEM?
There’s so much I would want to say. I am a big proponent of being yourself and learning to love yourself. Being one of a few girls who could code in college and even now was and is interesting. I know I recently needed to hear this and I think from the stories I have been told and my own experience it's really important for girls to know that no matter what people say, don’t be discouraged to try new things and to speak your mind. In high school and in college I had a lot of people tell me I couldn’t do things because I was a girl. As I got older there were lots of times I was accused of flirting my way through classes or using my gender to get good grades. I know I wasn’t the only girl to experience it and I know that pushes girls away from STEM. It really shouldn’t happen but it does and it is really sad to see and hear my peers talk about it. It is hard, especially when it happens to my peers but as my friends taught me don’t let anyone get to you about what you love. It makes you who you are and while we need more women engineers, coders, scientists and technicians but we won’t get them unless we’re true to ourselves. I know it can be so hard to speak up and take the lead in a STEM field but your ideas are just as important as anyone else’s and you should never let someone’s negative thoughts impact you.
Why is FIRST a good program for girls to get involved in?
Where do I start? It is such a supportive community and so different from a traditional learning environment. Its great because you’ll get real life skills even if the your school/however you learn doesn’t offer a class on the subjects. You’ll get to experience some awesome things and what is and is not your niche. You also can try everything that makes up a team from mechanical engineering to design to coding to business management.
You’ll experience all different kinds of situations. Regardless of if you are a student or mentor, you can learn so much about yourself in FIRST. When I was a student I learned I can lead and be bold. I learned I do have great ideas. I also learned that there really is no wrong answer, it just was not the answer you or your team was looking for. Understanding that is so important to the learning process and I think it gives so much confidence in young people.
I also think seeing and talking to all the women who are in STEM fields at competitions is helpful because you can really see and step in their shoes for a bit. Getting that taste really drove me and many of my friends to try our hardest to learn and grow.
What is your favorite part about the FIRST community?
There is so much to FIRST and the community that drives it. FIRST has given me many experiences and skills that I haven’t gotten out of any other extra curricular activity or hobby I’ve participated in. While I have seen endless inspiration, some pretty incredible things and made friends: my favorite thing about the FIRST community is that in our own way we’re a family. If I meet someone at competition once or twice and I run into them outside of competition we come together as if we were close friends for years. It even happens when I meet someone from FIRST I have never met before. No matter where I go or what I am doing if I find someone who’s been in FIRST we immediately bond and that is the best part of the program to me. It is like we’re long lost relative meeting for the first time. I have never met someone who hasn’t had a few good memories in FIRST. Even if they didn’t stick with the program in high school we still have that connection. It is great to see how far FIRST has come in the 10 years I have been around and how many people have been on a FIRST team at some point in time.
Tell us about how you learned to love coding.
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