Life after FIRST:

What 4 Years in FIRST Taught Me About Confidence, Leadership, and Finding Passion

Part 1: Overcoming Crippling Fear


Background: FIRST Robotics is an international program that teaches students K-12 personal and professional skills through a robotics competition. FIRST stands for “For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” I competed in the highest-level division of FIRST called FRC (FIRST Robotics Competition) for high-school students, building 120-pound robots for an annual game challenge. You can learn more about FIRST robotics at usfirst.org

Four years ago, when my mother asked if I wanted to join the school robotics team, I said “Sure, why not.” I was fourteen years old, terrified of speaking in public, and unable to tell the difference between a drill press and a band saw. Fast forward to February of 2015: I’m holding a microphone in front of 500 people, ready to welcome them and run one of the largest pre-season scrimmages in the southeast. Fast forward again to July 2015: I’m in Brazil, waving goodbye to 37 local children who I’ve taught and learned to love over the past 5 days, unable to believe my journey as a FIRST student is coming to a close.

Leading a 25-team scrimmage in February

Summarizing what I’ve learned from my years in FIRST is difficult because of the depth and magnitude of the program’s effect. FIRST and my team, Walton Robotics, didn’t just teach me personal and professional skills that enriched my resume; they changed who I am. How do you measure something that has altered the way you see yourself and the world, guided you to pursue a career, and helped you to see what it means to have passion?

The first of many things that my team gave me is confidence. Growth through challenges is the nature of FIRST, and my team embraces that by constantly pushing its students out of their comfort zone. Granted, my comfort zone as an intimidated, mostly inaudible freshman was pretty small. I struggled with even answering questions in class because sometimes just having to speak in front of a room full of my classmates could cause my eyes to well up. It was bad.

My fourth and final year presenting Chairman’s — this time at worlds!

I was a member of the Chairman’s presentation team my first year, and I quickly learned that you can only give a presentation a certain number of times before the words naturally stop choking each other on the way out. The idea of delivering a high-stakes presentation in front of solicitous judges was scary initially, like most things in FIRST, but actually doing it made me much more confident in my speaking abilities. One of my most vivid memories of my time on the team is from a Chairman’s practice about a month before competition my freshman year. We had a speaking coach from Toastmasters come in and critique our presentation skills, and boy did he have a lot to say about me. I wasn’t kidding about being inaudible; the Toastmasters guy said he could hardly hear me, and he and my mentors spent a few minutes encouraging me to “Yell, Stephanie, yell!” By the end of the practice I was screaming (or what I considered screaming) my slides at the audience, feeling giddy as I giggled at myself.

I never thought in my life I’d consider public speaking one of my strengths, but a lot can change in four years. I’ve realized that public speaking is an opportunity, not a crutch; although my hearts still beats like mad before any presentation, I’ve learned to enjoy getting up in front of an audience. Speaking publicly is an opportunity to share your passion, and seeing it that way has changed the way I deliver my ideas.Now I jump at opportunities to speak on panels, give presentations, or represent the team in front of crowds (and sometimes rolling cameras). I’ve been interviewed by Georgia Public Broadcasting (twice), CBS Atlanta, and BusinessRadioX about FIRST and my team, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each opportunity to share my excitement with the world.

Spending a lot of time outside of my comfort zone helped me realize how thrilling it is to be outside the bubble of safety- to stand up in front of 500 people, with or without a plan, and trust that you’ll be able to welcome and lead them through a full-scale scrimmage. To embrace the vulnerability of writing openly and sharing that writing with the world, to take opportunities because they scare you. I’ve realized that the ability to take risks is like a muscle; you can make it stronger by practicing often on small things and push yourself out of the your comfort zone more easily when important opportunities come up. Ask that question even if a lot of people are watching. Start a conversation with a stranger on the subway. Introduce yourself to the person who’s higher up on the company ladder than you are. Being uncomfortable is a thrilling generator of confidence that everyone deserves to experience, and I’m grateful for the opportunities my team and FIRST gave me to do so.