Sunday, May 21, 2017

My Time at Vanderbilt— A One Year Reflection + Storytime

Sometimes, miracles DO happen. For me, it was getting into ILC as a sophomore and being able to
go to Vanderbilt. I knew that ILC changed people, but I had never even imagined what it would do to me.
Vandy squad departing

Vanderbilt was full of such passionate, confident people that I hadn't met before. The atmosphere was different than what could be found anywhere in our district. In fact, I even thought it was different than what I encountered every time I visited UC Berkeley. This difference made me uncomfortable. I became just as shy as I was a couple of years ago, and it was becoming increasingly hard to be my normal self. I didn't make as many friends as I initially expected.

But I realized it was because I was finding myself in a place that was way outside my comfort zone. The people, the atmosphere, the way things were, nothing was anywhere close to how I had been raised the past 15 years. I just needed to push myself even more, and try to get even more out of my comfort zone so I could get used to the atmosphere. I kept trying to make as many new friends as possible, and holding longer conversations with them. I was determined to try to get as used to this new way as much as I could. Now, it wasn't as if I was mentally torturing myself. Along the way, I was having fun and making lasting bonds. (In fact, one of my friends from Vandy just helped me pick my prom dress, too!)
My cute proctor group

This three weeks stretch of stubborn persistence apparently changed me a lot without me realizing. I knew something was different as soon as I stepped off the plane. Once school started, I was surprising people with things I did, the clothes I wore, the habits I adopted. In fact, I was even surprising myself, "Did I really just say all that out loud in front of the entire class?" or "Was I really just able to talk to him with that much confidence?"

This confidence led me to do something that wasn't supported at all by my school. What was it? Well...I guess it's story time:

The FTC team winning Judges' Award + selfie with judge
I had heard of the many learning opportunities FIRST Robotics provided. One of their competitions was known as First Tech Challenge or FTC. Starting a team costed over $3000— of which we had $0. A club at our school the previous year had competed in a local robotics competition, and after seeing how much more was possible, I asked to have robotics separated as an independent club. This meant I'd have to start it from ground up, with some people around me saying it wasn't possible at a school like ours. I almost believed it when the principal continuously didn't show the active enthusiasm I expected for something as educational and hands-on as robotics. 

I was getting tired of the way things were running. If there was anything I took away from Vanderbilt, it was that pushing yourself could change anything; here, I was going to push the principal, all the sources I had, all the people I knew, and secure the money we needed. Eventually, I was finally able to obtain a grant (HUGE shout-out to Bio-Rad!) just in time to allow me to register a team and finalize robotics as an active club.

After gathering up a team and competing, all of us realized how much of a disadvantage we had. We had no teachers helping us. We had no teacher wanting to stay with us to build, and we'd get kicked out of our working room all the time. We didn't have great 3D printers to make parts we needed. We didn't have money to buy sturdy parts. We had no support. All we had was each other, Google, YouTube and purely basic robotics parts.

Robot at PiE
A few months later, and we're competing in PiE Robotics, a local robotics competition held at UC Berkeley. All the schools we were competing against had everything we didn't: teachers, support, mentors at school, a reliable place to work, and many resources. Chances of winning were bleak to us, but I pushed myself and everyone, and everyone pushed everyone else.

And then...WE WON FIRST PLACE. My teammates and I cried tears of joy. We had just won a competition against schools that have legacies of robotics, and it felt surreal. 

In this past year, so much had been done: from starting up an FTC team, hosting outreach robotics programs at our local middle school, winning PiE, all the way to the planning of starting and mentoring many competitive elementary robotics teams. It was like living a dream. We were getting called up by the principal to speak at staff meetings. We were on the map, being compared to years' long programs like MESA and other engineering academies.

Bittersweet end of the trip
And it all started with just trying to push past limits. Looking back, I would have never had the guts to take these initiatives if it wasn't for ILC. I wouldn't have the confidence to shamelessly advertise the club all the time and get students to join. I wouldn't know how to properly talk to adults to get grants and donations. Most of all, I wouldn't have the ability to keep pushing myself even when people close to me were telling me to give up.

I cannot thank Don, ILC's sponsors, and the panelists who allowed me to have this opportunity, enough. I always say this, and I'll say it again: When people say ILC changes lives, they truly mean it. My life had been turned upside down in the best way possible. I was able to finally stand up for myself and others, be braver than I ever was, and know how to take initiatives. It was what I had wanted to be since middle school. Yet, there's still always more room for improvement and here's to another year of ILC to help me transform into the better human being I've dreamt of being