To those of you who are considering mentoring an FRC team while attending college, I'd like to tell you my story, and make a simple appeal to you: Don't do it.
Note: Please consider reading this post's companion with my Advice to Graduates.
When I was in high-school, I was a student for two years on FRC Team #20. After graduation, as a recipient of a merit scholarship for FIRST students, I studied Mechanical Engineering at Clarkson University. I mentored FRC Team #229 for all four years I was there.
I think this was a mistake.
That's not to say it was a bad mistake. I've made much bigger mistakes in my life...
I greatly enjoyed it, and I am forever thankful for all the wonderful people I met and experiences we shared. Since I am very happy with how my story is playing out, and while I try not to regret the decisions which made me who I am: I still think mentoring in college was a bad move.
You know how sometimes you can make the wrong move in a game, but still end up winning? You choose the statistically less favorable path to success... but still end up there reflecting: "Jeeeeeez that was a bad idea, thank goodness it turned out okay."
Maybe this is one of those things. "Wrong move, good outcome..."
What are your goals for the future? For Life? For your time attending school?
Have you thought about them? I've posted some of the advice I give to students moving forward.
When I was going off to school, I hadn't really given much thought to a larger "life plan". I figured I'd get my degree, find some amazing job and live happily ever after. I wish I had thought more about those same things which I now urge my students to think about.
Like with most people, there are a variety of reasons why I mentor. This is true now, and was true when I was a college kid on 229 at Clarkson. At some level, I think almost everyone mentors because: "Playing with Robots is Fun" and right behind that "Trying to win against tough competition is fun!"
I think that's totally natural. It's true for me, true for all my friends in the program, and I suspect true for almost everyone. While some people might want you to believe that we're all here for the <INSERT CHAIRMAN'S VIDEO TYPE ANSWER> altruistic reasons, that's only part of it. At some point, we're here because this is fun! It's fun for me now... and it was fun for me when I was in college. THAT, is one of the problems.
When I mentored 229, it was less about mentoring kids than it was about continuing to compete. I had unfinished business. I wanted to keep "playing robots" and wanted to keep learning and growing within this competition.
Sure. The other more positive reasons to mentor were there (and still are)...
I wanted to give back to the program which had given me so much. I found it incredibly fulfilling to work with students and help them grow. I wanted to be part of a team. I believed in the mission of the program, and wanted to inspire people and get them excited about STEM.
But mostly... I just wanted to keep playing robots.
How Did It Go?
It went "okay" - I think I was a mediocre mentor.
In retrospect, it would have been very easy for me to cause a negative experience for a student. I was inexperienced as a mentor (I had NO idea what I was doing, but thought I had it all figured out). My reasons for mentoring were more related to "playing robots and winning competitions" than they were to mentoring students.
This was not a recipe for success... Thankfully we had some great teachers supporting us college "mentors" and they kept the train on the tracks.
For the first few years, I struggled to be viewed as a "mentor" by the students. After-all, in some cases I was mentoring students who were older than I was. I didn't know what tone to take, what I should and shouldn't say. "Who the heck qualified me to do this stuff? Isn't there a book which tells you how to mentor?"
Side Note: I can't imagine how hard it must be to do this on the team you just left.
(In fact, to encourage this separation, the Robowranglers don't allow our alumni to return as mentors until four years after their graduation.)
I definitely fell into the black-hole of "FRC takes all my time." The nature of this program makes it VERY easy to focus on the team's needs, and lose focus on larger goals in your life (or any sense of work/life balance - does this sound familiar to anyone?)
"I don't want to let the team down, they're counting on me... I'll just skip studying for this Calculus test, and make it up on the final."
When you feel like "I CAN do some good for this team" it is hard to realize: "Just because I can, doesn't mean I SHOULD (right now)."
This can happen to anyone who gets hooked on FRC, but it can be especially dangerous for college students. I had lots of freedom growing up - but that freedom paled in comparison with the Freshman year realization of: "I can do WHATEVER I want."
My life prioritization / time-management skills needed to play some serious "catch-up" before I should have been trusted to make responsible choices...
(My GPA was NOT a 4.0 - I'll just leave it at that.)
At various times, I let the pressure of the program get to me. Burnout is a real issue. (In fact, we named one robot 'Burnout').
Picture it... I'm some clueless college kid and all of a sudden people expect me to lead them. I feel that the success of a team is resting on my shoulders. This situation makes for poor decision making, and lead to some break-downs. (Refer to the above note about needing to bolster my prioritization & time-management skills).
Thankfully - I worked with some other very wonderful people, we built some robots, we kept the team running for four years and we mentored dozens of students. (Most importantly: I'm reasonably sure, some of those kids learned a few things and grew from the experience.)
I learned a lot, made life-long friends and I met a lot of great people throughout the robotics community. I got my degree, and I got a job at a great company.
Would I do it all-over again?
What I Should Have Done.
I should have spent more time thinking about larger goals, and how to achieve them.
I should have spent more time learning about topics other than those which would help design winning FRC robots.
I should have focused on my education, and my GPA.
I should have explored NEW activities. As it is, my hobby through high-school, college, and today... has been FRC. Maybe I should have branched out a little?
I should have done Mini Baja. I mean... to be clear, any time I'm talking about "new activities in college" I'm whimsically thinking about about the Clarkson Mini Baja team. Clarkson University has this incredible SPEED program which focuses on team-project activities for undergrads. When I was at Clarkson the FRC team was one of these teams, and the Mini-Baja was one of the others. Man... that would have been fun.
I think one of the best things about being involved in FRC while at Clarkson was the feeling I got from being part of a project team. It was a formative experience for me to be on a project with some of peers where we had to produce something tangible...not for a class. I definitely would have wanted to find that same experience, and joining the Baja team would have done the trick (while broadening my experience, and making me stronger in other ways!)
This "non-robot team" group project activity also would have provided many of the same opportunities to have fun, and make friends that I got from being on 229. (I needed SOME of this experience to "socialize" me a bit. Some would argue, I still need that.)
I should have volunteered for FRC competitions. I envy those folks who volunteer throughout college as a way of giving back to FIRST while staying engaged in the community. I think they've got the right idea.
I should have prepared myself to be a better mentor when I graduated. The program didn't go away during my four years of college, and I was able to join a team after I settled into my job in the real world.
I should have used my spring break to go explore somewhere fun, instead of going to the Cleveland, Hartford, Long Island, and (again) Cleveland regional competitions with the team. Man... it's depressing just listing those. "SPRING BREAK CLEVELAND, WOOOOO!"
What the System Wants
I think there is an expectation among many FRC students that if they do NOT mentor, they are somehow letting someone down... or letting "the system down".
After years of reflection... I think this is silly.
Of course, I can't speak for "the system" and I sometimes cringe at the rhetoric from official channels (I groan whenever someone recommends students "Go Start a FIRST team at your college!").
After my experiences, and having meditated on the larger needs, goals, and values of the program: I can say... if we end up waiting a few years for you to get involved, we will DEFINITELY get more from you in the long-run. If you do NOT mentor in college, ultimately you will likely inspire greater change in the world. Weird thought, huh?
We all feel the pull to help out a team in need. I certainly felt like the team benefited from me being there, and I knew we were making a difference: "Even if I'm not the best mentor in the world, I can still do some good for these kids..." - that's true, but that wasn't my job. I had other goals I should have been focusing on, at that time.
Every situation is different, and everyone needs to make their own decisions based on their particular circumstances. I hope my story and comments will help budding mentors make a better decision than I made, even if they end up making the same decision.
Focus on your goals, and how you're working towards them.
Always be growing.
I love the quote:
"Be the person you needed when you were younger" - Ayesha Siddiqi
Don't be afraid to spend some time PREPARING yourself to be that person.
If you decide to come back, once you're ready - the program will be waiting for you.
Pay it Forward
Do you agree with my advice?
Did you walk this path, and have stories to share?
Have advice of your own to pass along?
Take the time to pass along your wisdom.
Share this post with those people who you think would benefit from reading it...