Inspired Youth, Inspire You: The FIRST Student Point of View is an ongoing blog series dedicated to showcasing the unique perspectives of FIRST students about how to foster a more diverse STEM field, what they’ve learned from their FIRST experiences, and more.
FIRST is committed to expanding opportunities for all students to participate and thrive in FIRST programs. As part of this work, we want to highlight the unique experiences of the diverse youth who participate in FIRST.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Olufunsho Akinleye, or Olu as he is known to his friends. Olu is a senior at Oshkosh West High School in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, who participates on FIRST Robotics Competition Team 2826 “Wave Robotics.”
Olu began his journey with FIRST in sixth grade when his mom heard about a local FIRST LEGO League team and encouraged him and his older brother to participate. Right away, he was hooked and participated in this program for the next two years. When he was old enough to join FIRST Robotics Competition as a high school student, he thought he knew what he wanted to do: coding and programming. Very quickly, however, he seized an opportunity to explore and hone skills in other areas.
Shortly after he joined the team, he was approached by the lead robot driver and was given the opportunity to learn how to use AutoCAD. This older student became a mentor for him, and from there Olu discovered a passion for mechanical design. Now Olu himself is a mentor to fellow students and leads Wave Robotics as team captain.
In the below Q&A with FIRST Staff, Olu shares his experience participating in FIRST, his ideas regarding how we can all help foster more diversity in STEM fields, and what’s next for him after high school.
How does FIRST and robotics stack up against other activities offered at your school?
It’s not like athletics where it is promoted, and everyone gets it. I am in multiple sports and other clubs and my friends know I am also in robotics; they are interested in it and ask me about it, but it doesn’t gain the traction like sports do. I also think there is still a stigma around being part of STEM groups or robotics in general. It is hard to get people to change their preconceived thoughts.
Do you feel like you’ve gained more confidence in STEM since joining FIRST programs?
Yes, joining FIRST gave me more confidence and has allowed me to learn new skills that I didn’t have before. One of the main things is that it opened me up to all of my options for future careers [in STEM]. Before FIRST, it seemed like my options were generic like studying biology or chemistry, but now I can see so many more options I have.
Do you have anything planned for post-high school?
Yes! I want to study Biomedical Engineering and ultimately become a doctor. I have applied to many, many universities so far but my top picks I’m waiting to hear back from are Purdue, UCLA, UC Berkley, Johns Hopkins, and NYU.
What is your dream career and how has FIRST helped prepare you for that?
I want to be a cardiothoracic surgeon. Through FIRST, I’ve learned that it’s OK to fail. I’d always been the type of person who hated to fail. Most things in school came easy for me, and when I started learning AutoCAD it was challenging. When things went wrong, I had to work through it and learn how to get better. For me, that’s what FIRST is all about.
What do you think we can do now to help create a more diverse workforce within STEM disciplines?
It’s all about getting the info and the programs out there. Many kids in communities don’t have access to these programs and don’t know they exist. We need to show them what options they have. It is also hard for each FIRST team to do this work on their own and reach their local communities. I also think we need to publicize STEM in general.
Do you have any suggestions for how we can raise awareness about these opportunities within FIRST and STEM in general?
I think that teaching kids at a young age about Black History Month and the contributions of Black STEM leaders are really important. In my elementary school we had conversations where all students were part of one big discussion. We got to learn together and that has made it easier to talk about important issues as we grow older.
How do you inspire other students to explore STEM and robotics?
I have had students ask me about my experience with robotics and I enjoy telling them about it. I always try to encourage people to try new things and to not be afraid to take a chance.
What advice do you have for students who are not sure if they want to join a FIRST team?
Don’t be afraid of what other people think, just try it. I am thankful that my mom had always valued academics and pushed me to be great in that area. But a lot of the time people want to push kids of color into athletics because that is what gets publicized. Just because something isn’t publicized, or in the news, doesn’t mean it can’t bring you value.
Do you have any role models in the STEM field?
Elon Musk because he doesn’t care about what other people think of him. He has new ideas and isn’t afraid to talk about them and build upon them.
What makes you feel empowered?
I always think to myself that with new days come new ideas. Some days I don’t want to go to a certain class but then I think about how lucky I am to have these opportunities and I want to use them.
What is your superpower?
Resilience. In athletics I’ve been hurt multiple times, but I don’t let it stop me physically or mentally. On the robotics team I don’t always feel like I have the best answers when a younger student asks me a question, but I always try my hardest to help where and when I can. Even if I don’t know something, I don’t let that stop me from trying.