Advice to Graduates

Now that the Robowrangler season is long over, and our Class of 2018 is moving off to make their mark on the world - I’ve been thinking about what advice I can offer them.

Here’s what I’ve come up with: Advice to Graduates.

When I previewed the write-up for a few people and asked for their comments, I got a lot of great feedback. One point in particular came from Grant Cox, a fellow Robowrangler mentor (and someone who has a great perspective on the journey FRC graduates are about to take).
He said among other things: “The real shame is that not enough people will read this advice.” and then encouraged me to engage the wider community.

So that said:
Do you agree with my advice?
Did you walk this path, and have stories to share?
Have advice of your own to pass along?

Please share! Take the time to pass along your wisdom.
Share this message with those people who you think would benefit from it most!


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As someone who didn’t know about FRC while I was in college and got to do other things my advice is this:

Do other things
Make new and different friends
Find another hobby
Enjoy your college experience

FRC will still be here when you graduate, that time you had in college won’t.

If you absolutely feel like you must stay involved, volunteer, don’t mentor.

I like your point about not having to become an engineer, and that FIRST implies that “If you’re not an engineer you’re letting us down”

There is so much more you can be than an engineer and I don’t think you should limit yourself to that. It’s like the father who really wants his son to take over the family business.

As a class of 2018 graduate who IS going into engineering, this was an excellent read. I agree there is enormous pressure to become an engineer in FIRST. For me its a passion. For others it can feel forced. Thanks for writing!

I’m going to slightly disagree with the hard-fast “don’t mentor in college” advice, because personally, I feel that it’s a little backhanded to the “do what works for you” sentiment I see around here, though the topic certainly has valid points on both sides. If mentoring is really what you’re set on doing, I have several words of caution.

1. Avoid immediately returning to your high school team.

As hard as you may try, breaking the habit of behaving as a student and/or being seen as a student is difficult. Being around all the same people you’re used to being around is unlikely to help you. On a different team, it’s much more likely that the people there will pull you out of strict “student mode”.

2. Don’t commit as much time you did when you were a student.

As others have said, there’s plenty of other things to do in college than FRC. FIRST can and will suck up all your free time if you allow it to, so make it a goal to cut back on the number of hours you’re used to and branch out a bit more, at least until you know how it balances with other aspects of your life. Related to this point…

3. Don’t overexert yourself.

No singular action you perform should be able to make or break your team or any of its positive experiences, and you should not be made to feel otherwise. You will not be contributing the most, and you may feel more like an observer than a mentor at times. You should be limiting yourself to smaller tasks and (hopefully) taking some time to simply get to know a new team.

4. Know when to pull back (more).

One thing that doesn’t change is the expectation that you go to class, do your work, and fulfill your other various obligations. One thing that DOES change is the amount of freedom you have to neglect these obligations. Don’t! Failing your classes because you wanted to keep doing FRC won’t get you anywhere. Be honest with yourself and with your team about what you do and do not have time and energy for. If point 3 tells you anything, the team will not crash and burn if you need to take some time away.

5. Understand your responsibility.

If you’re a mentor in any capacity, your job is not to play robots, and your job is not to win competitions. There may be an “I” in FIRST, but it stands for inspiration. Your job is, at the very least, not to get in the way of this aspect of FIRST for the students. If you can add to it, great! But do not take away from it. Nobody benefits from that. The thing that helps the robot be better is not necessarily the thing that makes the team better.

Even after all this, you may very well be better off not mentoring. I’ve met people who simply don’t make the greatest mentors in college, either from being hard-stuck in student mode or having the tendency to take more than they give from a team. This is okay. Take time off. Volunteer. Do other things. FIRST doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

Other advice:

Speaking to one of JVN’s other comments, being in FRC does not mean you have to major in engineering or even go to college. While plenty of people do take this path, this big wide world of ours has plenty of other equally beneficial things for you to be doing. At the most basic level, you are a product of FIRST. A good product is designed to do a specific task, but many times the same product has other perfectly good uses for which it was never made to do, like using Coke to clean your toilet. In the same way, FIRST may be designed to have students go on to become engineers and scientists, but along the way, FIRST students have managed to go down lots of other paths. This doesn’t make you wrong or shameful. It just means you found a unique use for your experiences. Do whatever it is you’re driven to do. Be the toilet cleaner in a world of soft drinks, and do a bang-up job at it.

Excellent post.

I want to relate a story as a technical mentor (and parent of an alum) at a STEM school… Our school sets aside 1-2 weeks (1 for underclassmen, 2 for upperclassmen) in January/February for I-Term, a built-in “internship” opportunity for every student in the school.

It starts for the freshman as a group/class scripted outing to one or two local businesses to hear about that they do. It grows in scope and depth, and the number of students at a business shrinks as the students progress each year. As a senior it culminates with a more typical short 2-week internship at a local company, followed by a presentation to the students peers, parents, teachers, and the business they interned at.

Many of the senior-year internships connect well with the students, some don’t, and during the course of the I-Term experience across the years many students will find businesses/jobs/careers they want nothing to do with. Some students make a random connection, find something, and fall in love with a career they didn’t expect.

Our graduates, despite being from a STEM school, go on to various things. Some go into STEM via a 4-year school, some take the 2-to-4 year route thru Community College (for various reasons), some go to college for non-STEM careers, some have gone into the military, or the workforce.

Despite the school’s STEM focus, I do not consider any student who doesn’t enter a STEM-field/study a failure. I believe it is our job to give them this experience, this opportunity, and for them to find and do what they love, STEM or not.

In the same way we can learn just as much (if not more) from our failures than our successes, students can learn from these kinds of experiences if a career/job is suited for them.

Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.


I really appreciate your graduate advice - you articulated concerns that I hadn’t realized I had. My philosophy as a mentor is that I want my students to learn a ton, have a ton of fun, and then make an informed decision with what they want to do with their lives. I also enjoyed reading your advice about mentoring a team in college.

As a college mentor myself, the college mentor discussion is one that I’ve got a lot of passion for. I don’t disagree with anything that you said, but my experience has been different than yours. I just finished writing a a post on my blog about this last year. Hopefully my perspective is helpful for someone and adds to the overall conversation.

P.S.: Seeing Karthik with some hair was pretty fun.

This article is full of excellent advice or things for the FIRST community to think about as students, mentors, and volunteers. Reconsidering what we define as failure or success is powerful with the pressures people can feel to stay in the program after graduating or go into a field they aren’t sold on. It seems that many FRC participants that are undecided feel they have to go into a STEM field and when they graduate they have to find a new team to mentor. That is simply not true.

This past year I’ve interacted with several people who shared regrets over succumbing to the pressure they felt regarding what major to pursue. Included in this group are people who did or did not participate in FIRST and put what they wanted on the back burner. Its a shame because of the financial stress it puts them under later on with additional years of school, or returning for the degree they really wanted after a few years in the workforce. From the start, do what makes you happy because in 10-30+ years down the road those pressuring you most likely won’t be a part of your life.

Did I take JVN’s advice? Not really.

On the topic of mentoring or not to mentor out of college, that’s a tough one to answer. I didn’t take a break and jumped right in to help a local teacher start 3467. I had no solidified college plans when I graduated so my life for two years was work, part-time classes, and mentoring. My involvement led to a full-time job working for one of our sponsors handling things project management, office administration, product R&D, IT, CNC manufacturing, and CAD for machines and building layouts. All of these areas stemmed from experiences I gained through mentoring. I was able to use my position to create jobs for a few team members, some who still work there today.

After the 2015 season and three years of no classes, I started to move in a new direction aimed at completing a degree in management which aligned with what enjoyed in FRC and work. Maximizing the resources of an organization, planning work, forming the vision of a company, developing strategy, meeting objectives, and measuring performance. Three years since I started on that path and eight years since I graduated high school, I’m currently six weeks away from finishing a degree in Business Management with a minor in Information Technologies with essentially zero student debt.

Looking back do I regret mentoring? Absolutely not. It was instrumental in getting me where I am today and providing me with a wealth of lessons and opportunities for growth. Would I have done things differently with my level of involvement, focus, or what I defined as a success? Yes. Mentoring fresh out of high school is hard because of how blurred the definition of success is at that age and how easy it is to jump in and do everything.

If you are still reading this and think I’m saying you should mentor after you graduate high school that is not the case. Remember, I had no plans when I graduated and will admit I had no motivation to complete a degree. Most of you recent alumni have schools lined up to attend later this month that you’ve been planning to attend for most of this year. Make that your focus, because that’s the stage of life you are transitioning into!

Focusing on school/education of some sort needs to be a full-time focus at some point after you graduate high school. Not everyone’s path as an alumni will be identical which is why I felt compelled to write this response as someone who didn’t major in STEM, didn’t go to college immediately, and mentored out of high school. Don’t blindly follow a path or pressure others into mentoring assuming its the natural progression out of FIRST programs.

Join a design team. FRC is fun and all, but if you’re looking for the college level FRC experience, join a design team. Solar Car, SAE, Mars Rover, AGV, Hyperloop… the list goes on and on for design teams that present you with a task and a schedule to design something that can compete on that scale.

And if you really have that much love for FIRST specifically, volunteer at an event! It will give you a whole different view on the show over the span of 1-3 days. And there’s food and a T-shirt. You’ll learn how valuable those things are.

First off: Only engineering is STEM. If FIRST is sending this message, I have completely missed it, and so have many if not all of our team members. My degrees are in Physics (with a Computer Science minor on the bachelors), and I have worked as an Oceanographer for thirty years. TOTALLY STEM. My oldest (who FOUNDED the team) is majoring in computer science. TOTALLY STEM. My youngest is going to a community college to become an electrician. TOTALLY STEM. My middle child was also on the team, and is pursuing an American Sign Language certification. Totally not STEM, but definitely something we need. We do track how many of our graduates pursue STEM, but we have never thought of breaking out the E.

Second: mentoring after completing the program. We have always been clear that second, third, and fourth year student members are expected to do some mentoring functions, passing on what they have learned to other students (and in a few cases, to mentors). Mentoring after graduation was never a priority. In seven years, we have only had two graduates come back to mentor more than a dozen hours, nor have I heard that any others have provided mentorship to other teams. Those two are: Gixxy, our team founder (and OBTW my oldest, who for reference brought me into FRC), who mentors 3468 MagnaTech in West Monroe from Ruston (a half hour drive), and who continues to mentor 3946 remotely through our Slack channel and programming classes. Along the way, he has also captained an IEEE Extreme team through several top 200 in the world performances, led at least one “hackathon” team to victory, leads Pathfinder , and participates in so much more. The second is Pereichi (and OBTW my youngest) who started on an electrical engineering path but has since returned home to pursue an electrician certification. (FWIW, his great grandfather started on an electrical engineering path, but later became the totally awesome diesel mechanic who designed and built the “human cannonball” device for The Flying Zucchini.) Don’t get me started on their paternal grandfather, K5AJK who was dreaming of teaching a class on vacuum tubes when his new wife asked him how he’d like his eggs. “The same temperature as the plate”. Bottom line: wherever those two got it from, it wasn’t FIRST propaganda.

I think the message was a little more pointed in my early days in the program, circa 2004. They’ve done a good job of rounding it off since then, though the mission still front-loads “science and technology leaders and innovators” and puts “foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership” at the end. I can see where people would get the impression.

Having just came off my first year of college Mentoring at Purdue University, your advice is super helpful to future new students. However, I would definitely cautious when making the blanket statement that no student should mentor in college. Having grown up in a community around Purdue that a large quantity of mentors are college student, I have met many mentors that have no regrets and have positively impacted hundreds of students.
Having now seen good and bad Mentoring, I think one of the largest parts of properly mentoring is to have a “mentor” mentor. Someone who can properly teach new mentors how to be leaders by example, balance student and mentor work, understand the culture differences of being a mentor vs a student, teach team culture, and understand different team philosophy.
I had an amazing opportunity to mentor FIRST since my freshman year of high school, and though FRC is much different than FLL or FTC, it taught me some of the necessities of being a mentor. I plan on sharing them in a post soon, as well as at Purdue FIRST forums, a great event where students of all ages can learn from Indiana’s finest in FRC.
For anyone who is or knows of someone attending Purdue this coming year, feel free to reach out to myself about Purdue FIRST Programs. It’s an excellent leadership class (yes, college credits given) that helps teach college students how to balance FIRST and college, along with allowing them to stay active in FIRST by either volunteering, planning events, or Mentor FLL, FTC, or FRC. As a current college mentor director of FRC team 1646, I plan on adding this document to my teaching curriculum, thanks for an excellent source!
Finally, as for staying active in other clubs in college, Purdue’s Cary Comets floor hockey, which I captain, is looking for more people!