Many of you in this community may not know me, but because of the circumstances it’s time for me to share my story. It’s a long one, but I hope you’ll see it through to the end. Innovation First Inc, FRC 148, and Grant Cox exploited my innocence and pushed me out when I was no longer useful.
I went into high school bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to take the next big step in growing up. My best friend was trying out for the robotics team, so naturally she convinced me to join her, and we both made it. If I only knew then how traumatic this chapter of my life would be. The robotics teacher at the time was extremely sexist. While the guys were busy building VRC robots, us girls were tasked with creating signs and running off campus with the teacher’s credit card to buy snacks for the team. As the school year continued and approached FRC season, the IFI mentors became much more prevalent in my life.
As many of you are aware, John V Neun was the lead engineer for FRC 148 for more than a decade. I was new to the robotics world, and I saw the way other team members looked up to him. He was a God, a legend. Everyone on the team was trying to get in with him. If JVN liked you, you were set. He gave you more one-on-one time to learn CAD and other programs. If you weren’t a favorite, you were just another pair of hands for assembly when the sheet metal came back. As a self-proclaimed teacher’s pet, it was my goal to become a favorite of JVN.
Given that I was a young woman showing interest in robotics, it wasn’t hard to end up on the better side of things. As a freshman in highschool, I couldn’t see how odd it was that there was a man 10 years my senior who wanted to be that close to the students on the team. It felt like I had an adult best friend, and in my innocence I ignored the worries my parents voiced about inappropriate relationships. Throughout my years on the team, I would continue to look up to JVN and feel that we were friends, as much as a student and mentor can be. He bought me a coconut man sculpture when he went to the Bahamas, and it still sits in my bathroom at my parents’ house. Everytime I visit and see its little face, my PTSD comes rushing back. I wish I could tell my parents to burn it.
My first year on 148 as a student was after the 2008 World Championship Win with teams 1114 and 217. To say the team carried themselves with arrogance is an understatement. They had gone undefeated at the St Louis Regional and were ranked second at the Bayou Regional. When World’s came along, 148 ranked 57 out of 86 teams in their division. 148 was a third pick robot that year, but from the actions of everyone on the team in 2009, you would have thought they ranked first. Throughout my time on 148, there was so much focus on winning. We had to Win. We had to get the Best Robot Award (which we decided was the Motorola Quality Award at the time). We were The Best. In reality, 148 was an over-sponsored team with too much money and the wrong focuses. I remember having conversations with my dad (who was interested in being a mentor but wasn’t accepted as one by the others) about why we were never as consistently good as 1114, 33, 254, 2056, and so on. We talked and I speculated that other teams were focused on building the best robot they could; the one that played the game the best and was reliable. Back on 148, JVN was always asking “what can we do to win?”, instead of finding the best way to play the game.
As forceful as it was said, the phrase “not mentor built” meant nothing. I spent about half of my time on 148 photographing and observing. I was shy about jumping in to speak and having had no prior engineering or robotics experience, I didn’t know how you even begin to design a robot. Most of my ideas were taken straight from the game animation, so obviously they wouldn’t work in reality. I watched as mentors hovered over students and sometimes broke off to test their own ideas. JVN often proclaimed that the team was student built, usually followed with “I never even touch the robot.” When I hear absolutes like this, I will always be watching to see if you told the truth. As a kid with a camera and a stubborn streak, I made it my mission to get a picture if he ever touched the assembled sheet metal. I’m sure I have hundreds of photos of him working on the robot with various equipment, but reliving all this trauma has taken a big enough toll that I don’t have the strength to search through my thousands of photos of my time with 148 and VEX.
Late nights at IFI were common, even more so nearing the end of build season. These late nights into early mornings were often a handful of mentors and students, usually the favorites. I have never been able to pull an all-nighter, but my freshman year of high school I really tried. I called my dad to pick me up around 4am, too tired to see straight. After that night I heard the first concerns from my parents about the robotics team. I should be careful about staying out too late and being able to function the next day. I brushed it off at the time, but now see the insanity of being one of two girls, both high school freshman, surrounded by adult men in a remote building late at night on a regular basis. I wish I would have taken their concern to heart.
Art has always been a passion for me. Both my mother and grandmother are artists, and there was always a way for me to artistically express myself. I became addicted to being a part of 148. In 2010 I tried harder to be helpful. I still didn’t understand mechanical design, so I went to the programmers to see what I could learn. As far as I know, I was one of the few students to want to program the robot at the time. In 2009 I hadn’t seen anyone interested in coding. In 2010 I was the only student on the programming bench. That year our teacher changed to Adrienne, who moved to Texas to live with her then boyfriend, JVN. With a strong woman in charge I thought I would like robotics more. I was determined to be a part of something I couldn’t wrap my head around. I had met Adrienne previously and had a hard time treating her as just a teacher. I would bring her coffee on a random day because that’s what I do for my friends, but also I tried hard to fit in with the mentors. I don’t know if they felt sorry for me or genuinely liked me, but becoming closer to the mentors than the students is what happened. I thought I liked the people so I stuck around through snide remarks and disparaging comments. I was so addicted to a team that constantly bullied and picked on me that in 2011 I gave up all of my art classes, all of my joy, to join the brand new STEM academy at Greenville High School. I lasted three weeks into my junior year before I finally realized that I wouldn’t and couldn’t be an engineer. I went to the counselor and got my schedule changed to be in both art and photography classes, replacing the STEM course and the robotics course. I didn’t know that being in the robotics class was mandatory for being on the team. The year prior there were a couple students not in the class that were on the team. It was then that Adrienne broke the news to me that I couldn’t be on the team.
I reluctantly left 148, and instead found joy, peace, and myself again through art. In middle school I had taken a photography class that ensnared me years before I was even old enough to take the class by way of my older brother. I dove back into photography with the goal of being a photojournalist. I was on the yearbook staff in middle and high school, so I used that to my advantage to go to robotics meetings and events. Not school sponsored, but if I could be there when the meeting or competition was, I was welcome. I still brought Adrienne the occasional coffee. I went to all the regional competitions with my parents that year, and knew that my senior year I would be back on 148 and stronger than ever.
2012 rolled around and I had found my place on 148. I did a little bit of programming, a little bit of photography, a lot of bedazzling, and, after the finals of our third and last regional, I was operator for our robot that year. Trying so hard to shine brighter than JVN’s current favorites was wearing on me. I had to impress this legend of the robotics world and his girlfriend, and prove that even though I couldn’t design a robot for the life of me, I was still needed. I hadn’t been acquainted with anxiety much before then, but by the time the FRC World Championships was upon us, I knew it well. Other aspects of my life shattered, but college was on the horizon and life was good.
After graduating high school it was easy to become closer with the team’s mentors. They went out drinking frequently, and often went to weekly trivia at a bar a few towns away (for a long time Greenville, TX was a dry town). Not even a few months after graduation, I was already joining mentors for drinking nights and trivia. I looked and acted mature for my age, and the mentors had been going to the same bars for long enough that the staff didn’t ID anyone in our party. My first drinks were purchased and given to me at the age of 18 by JVN and Adreinne Emerson, and other mentors later purchased alcohol for me and fellow mentors that were also underage. I was cautious at first, and never wanted to get in trouble, so it wasn’t infrequent for me to question if I should actually be drinking. The adults around me convinced me time and time again that I wouldn’t get caught, and that it wasn’t a big deal. Eventually I stopped wavering and was drinking happily along with them, still years before turning 21.
My first year as a mentor on 148 was 2013, the year after I had graduated high school. For years I drank the 148 kool aid. My senior year at our Year End Banquet, I was chosen as ‘Most Valuable Robowrangler’. Being such an integral part of team only solidified my want to mentor. I brought graphic design and photography to 148. I made Judge’s books to show off the best features of our robot. I was the team photographer and got my way paid to competitions. I can’t remember other students on the team that year being interested in a more creative take on robotics, so I spent tens of hours of my free time that should have been spent making new friends at college sitting in the same classroom as the year before, doing a lot of work for a robotics team that would spout at any given moment “We’re not mentor built! We’re student built! Our students built this!”
Most every student on the team knew how much the mentors drank. As a college mentor, I was indoctrinated nearly immediately. Along with the weekly trips to the bar for trivia, mentors were buying us alcohol at most meals and competitions. In 2013, 148’s travel regional was the Silicon Valley Regional. My role as media got my airfare and hotel room paid for by our sponsors. Before the scouting meeting on Friday night, Adrienne and a couple other mentors bought pitchers of beer for the table, which included myself and two other underage mentors. I was again unsure about illegally drinking, but after a beer or three I didn’t care anymore. To be friends with the mentors you had to keep up. I drank more on a competition weekend than I currently drink in a year. Off season events were great for the kids, yes, but the adults viewed them as benders. Mentors always showed up late and hungover, more so than the in-season events. The Indiana Robotics Invitational was notorious for being the craziest. Even us underage mentors were often still drunk when we left in the early morning hours of Sunday. After the events at IRI over the course of several years, the school district finally stepped up and put some restrictions on who could mentor the team in 2015. College mentors were no longer allowed, and once again my addiction to 148 shattered me. As much as I wanted a clean break, I had moved into a house with Adrienne after her uncomfortable break up with JVN, and she had told me that I could still do all the work I was doing, just not in an official mentor capacity. My mental health was drowning and I didn’t know what to do about it. I still hung out and drunk with the mentors for a while. They were still my friends. I had gotten close to JVN in what I considered a student/mentor relationship. After some odd texts, I realized that he was trying to date me. I still saw him as I did when I met him at 15, and felt incredibly gross. I awkwardly turned him down, and watched as he went after another former student that also worked at IFI.
Team 148 was my gateway to IFI. As highschoolers, a few of my classmates had gotten internships, so I decided to throw my hat in the ring, but for design and photography rather than engineering. Of course, the mentors at IFI pulled some strings and in 2011 I became the first high school design/graphics intern. Being on the design team was different from being an engineering intern. I chose my hours, and only worked a day or two a week after school. It felt more like me helping them out than being relied upon for the success of the company. I saw my classmate interns at IFI after school everyday, and well into the night and on weekends. It seemed like they were enjoying the time, but I suspect they were pressured to perform as well as the full time employees. As I interned for longer, I became thankful that I was a graphics intern, not an engineering intern. I saw my friends hard at work all the time, and watched as IFI swallowed them whole.
Part of the appeal of the IFI intern program were the amenities. In its infancy, the interns were put up in a small house about 100 yards away from the current building. Not fancy by any means, but a social hub for the youngest of the employees to dream about their futures and drink around a fire pit. When the switch was made years later to a new and bigger building, part of the complex was an “intern house” that more closely resembled an expensive frat house. I remember working at my desk when the blueprints were being drawn up, and hearing comments about how great the parties there would be, how much alcohol they could store, and the best places to play beer pong. The proximity of the intern house made it more convenient to not need a car in the vastness of Texas, but also easy to exploit their time. Interns were expected to work a minimum of 40hrs a week, often working upwards of 60. I remember making a comment to a fellow intern about how “at least the overtime will be nice”, and them responding with “we’re not allowed to record any time over 40hrs a week.” I was stunned and thankful that the scarce instances I had worked overtime, I had gotten paid for it.
One thing about getting a job at IFI was that work took over your life. To some it was a full on cannon ball into the deep end, and for others it was sitting on the beach and not realizing the tide is coming in. We would joke that work was our social life, and robotics and work were the only conversations held for longer than a few minutes for fear of an angry Tony yelling about how nothing ever gets done and how we’re all the reason why. At first I hardly interacted with Tony. The design team was in its own office, crowded even at the beginning. Not long after I started my internship the office shuffle began. What started out as a few interns grew into more and more college kids in the office. Every department had one or two interns, with the engineering department always having the most. I saw many interns come and go in my years at IFI, and made close friends with several across the states and even into Canada. Some were on a 3 month rotational program, others were just for the summer. I would listen to the other interns as we would drink around the fire and talk about how they were expected to produce so much, and to be careful to not have off topic conversations last more than a handful of sentences for fear of management yelling at them in the enclosed clear glass room, where anyone walking in or around the building could see.
There’s no denying the casual atmosphere of IFI, and as a casual person I was incredibly happy to wear jeans and flip flops to work. Every now and then I would dress up ever so slightly. I went from Walmart-casual to business-casual, and there were always comments on my appearance. There’s no denying that I’m an emo kid at heart, and I have a great appreciation for heavy eye liner. On days that I chose to wear makeup, I would always get the same comment from my manager: “Amy, you look really emo today.” First I changed how I wore my eyeliner, and then stopped wearing makeup completely because I was tired of the same conversation on repeat. Though my ‘dress up days’ dwindled, I started caring about my clothes more and decided I needed more than FRC shirts in my wardrobe. One day I walked into the building wearing my hair in a side braid, sporting a high collar sleeveless shirt, and winged eyeliner. The first thing out of my manager’s mouth when he saw me was “Amy, you look super asian today.” Half of the room called him out on his racist comment, but he defended himself. A year later I wore the same outfit and got the exact same response from him. I have Asian heritage and thought his comment was funny though uncomfortable at the time. I see now how I laughed it off the same way I did with 148’s mentors’ remarks.
As IFI grew, the workload increased. Around 2013/2014 the design team split in half to better focus on the subsidiaries, and my team was working mainly with VEX. IFI continued to expand and seemed to hire a lot of younger people not far out of college and excited to join a ‘party company’. VEX went through a brand refresh, and we worked closely with the marketing team with Grant Cox as my main contact. Many of you know Grant and have encountered his deceptively charming personality. As a 19 year old who hadn’t had anything in the way of romantic relationships, Grant’s flirty nature drew me like a moth to a flame. At 23 he was already great at seducing women, and I was no different. I had a full ride to college, and I should have been enjoying my time there and making new friends. Instead, I was stuck on Grant. I wanted to impress him. I wanted him to like me. I wanted his attention and approval, even after hearing him and the other guys in the office talk openly about their ‘body count’. I knew his number was high, but no one had really shown romantic interest in me, so I was a sponge for all the attention he gave. I spent more time working and making sure Grant had any and all marketing materials he needed. Grant noticed and liked the attention he was getting. We became close friends outside of work. I fell for him, and fell hard. At VEX World’s in 2014, a few months after we started dating (in my mind at least), Grant Cox took my virginity. We had gone to the afterparty and drunk ourselves stupid. I was 20 years old. It was something I had been wanting, and he offered to stop if it was too far for me. I believed him fully. Later I talked to one of his friends/employee at VEX and learned that there was no way he would have stopped. She told me that Grant had told her that even if I had changed my mind, he wouldn’t have respected my choice.
From then on, Grant and I were near-inseparable. We chatted all day everyday. I was head over heels, and ignored every red flag. He told me time and time again that he would never have another girlfriend. In my innocence I thought I could change him, if only I was good enough. I was eager to prove to him that I was worthy of his love, and jumped at every opportunity to hang out. When he would get drunk enough, he’d say things that gave me false hope and were my reasons for staying so long. He opened my eyes to the club scene, and later the rave scene when I showed enough interest. We talked about music nonstop, and EDM (electronic dance music) became a massive part of my life and identity. At clubs and bars he knew the bartenders and bought all my drinks. We almost got kicked out of a club because a bouncer saw me with a drink and an X on my hand. Grant bribed him and we stayed to hear the headliner that night. In my desire to be wanted, I let him turn me into a version of himself that I still struggle with to this day. One day I hope to fully love the pieces of myself that came from him.
As our situationship grew, I became exposed to various drugs. I started with weed on July 4th, 2014, and learned of party drugs. These were for “special occasions” like multi-day festivals or a favorite DJ. Molly was the most frequent, though I never indulged in that specifically due to my chronic depression. I had heard about the comedown, and knew that I would not be safe after all of the serotonin had left my brain and I was once again alone with the darkness of my thoughts. To keep my head in a better space, I again turned to Grant. We went to clubs every weekend and spent our Sundays with yoga, brunch, and the pool. I was getting more comfortable being around crowds and the party atmosphere, so going to a famous Tony Norman Halloween party was high on my list. I knew there would be underage drinking, but the cops that checked my ID sharpied an X on the back of my hand and I was worried they would later find me drunk and I’d get in trouble. I dressed up as a mermaid and was so excited to do a scale effect on my makeup. I wore blues and greens and all night I was asked by everyone if I was a blue person from Avatar. The snark with which those comments were said disheartened me, and the night had only just begun. I had planned on drinking but the police presence scared me. I was approached countless times by many of my coworkers demanding I get a drink. I showed them the X, and everyone responded with the same chorus: wash it off. I went to the bathroom to wash off the X, and on the way saw Tony’s high school daughter stumbling drunk, but I was still too paranoid to consume alcohol after the mark had washed down the drain. The late October air was frigid, and had me crowded around the heater with another coworker who was relatively sober. Nearing 2 am I was tired and cold and just wanted to go home. I carpooled with still-partying friends, and was hesitant to take the party bus shuttle home. I wavered to stay or leave, and Tony told me “alcohol is antifreeze for the body” so I just needed to drink more. I didn’t know how to react. I didn’t know most of these drunk people around me, and seeing the state of some of the other party goers, didn’t want to be stuck in a vomit-filled vehicle. Most of all I just wanted to go home. While the driver shuttled us to our respective houses, I watched as Chuck’s girlfriend became violently sick all over him at the beginning of the ride. The others protested against the horrid smell and we left the two on the side of a highway while other partygoers got dropped off. After a few stops we drove back to Chuck, dragged his girlfriend back in the bus, and headed on our way. I wanted the driver to take me to my parents’ house because it was close to the beginning of the route, but I was scared to face them after coming from a party they didn’t approve of. Hiding all this from my parents added more stress to the pile.
Depression has always been something I struggled with, but for the most part it could be dealt with by an angsty journal entry, some Linkin Park or Mayday Parade, and driving too fast on back country roads. I don’t know what path my mental health would have taken if I never joined robotics and was never introduced to this world. The path that I did go down was rough, and one that I’m still healing from more than a decade later.
Description of Self-Harm
When I first took a blade to my wrist, it was from some instance with Grant. I don’t remember what happened to make me reach for my knife, but the next morning I remember picking out bracelets to wear around my watch so my friends wouldn’t see the red welts on my wrist. From there my emotions spiraled towards rock bottom. My lows became lower and lower. I was trying to cope, and the cool sharpness of the blade on my skin cleared my head, made me feel, and became more and more frequent. When I was strong enough to tell people, Grant wanted me to promise to not cut again, but if I had to, not on my wrists. He said that it was safer and less visible to cut on my thighs or hips. I tried to keep my promise, but my emotions were running rampant and my wrist was the easiest spot that brought the most clarity. I cut shallow, so that the blood would only trickle and stop moments later. Only a few scratches, only enough to clear my head. During the days it took for my scabs to fade, the itching of my body healing itself reminded me that I could feel something, that I could control something. I was screaming for help and dreaming of death while Grant held my hand and watched me slip further and further away from reality.
At the beginning of 2015 I knew it had gotten too bad. I had to go to my doctor to get on antidepressants.
While working up the strength to ask a professional for help, VEX World’s was looming on the horizon. That was the first year that Louisville, KY hosted VEX Robotics at an international level. I had gotten my prescription days before the event started, and I knew they would mess with my brain, so I put off taking them until the event was over. I brought the pills to World’s with me, in case I changed my mind. The stress of the championship was setting in, and we were all tightly wound. Grant had a tendency to ignore my naivety and gaslight me, and it was becoming more frequent the more we hung out and the more stressed he became. If we had a misunderstanding, it was my fault. He insisted I should have known something, that I was overreacting, or any number of other things.
Description of Self-Harm
When Grant abused me like this I again turned to the blade.
With the Championship underway, tensions were growing. Karthik Kanagasabapathy was one of my biggest supporters while I was going through this. Because he was so outspoken about mental health, I felt safe going to him with my struggles. During Worlds 2015, after a comment or several from Grant, I had my darkest night.
Description of Self-Harm
I remember sitting alone on the floor in my hotel room and sobbing uncontrollably, back against the couch, holding my bottle of antidepressants in one hand and my razor in the other. I put the bottle away and brought the blade to my wrist. The clarity came, but not as much as before. I tried to cut deeper but was shaking too much. I feared what would happen if I did cut too deep. I thought of my mom as I messaged Karthik for help. I went to his hotel room so I wouldn’t cut again and I fell asleep in tears on the other bed in his room.
Karthik told me to wear my watch on the wrist I cut so people wouldn’t see the scars and checked up on me throughout the weekend. He was my confidant, and has saved my life in more ways than he knows. After World’s, I felt a distance growing with Grant. I wasn’t ready to let go, and continued to let him use my body in an effort to become closer.
Through the next six months I picked myself up and got on the right medication, but still struggled with unhealthy coping mechanisms. By November of 2015 I knew that IFI was toxic and I wanted out. The distance between me and Grant had grown to a point where even I had begun to tell myself to let go. I wanted to move on. Because I focused so much on 148 and IFI, I wasn’t able to be fully present in my design classes. By the time I was ready to focus on classes and apply for internships at real design firms, it was too late for my portfolio. Others in my class were getting picked up at some of the most prestigious marketing and design firms, and I began to doubt my abilities. I came to think of myself as only a mediocre designer, I wasn’t ever going to be good enough to work at top places. This was the same thought pattern that I had developed on 148. I wasn’t going to be an engineer, but maybe if I tried hard enough I could skate by. To add insult to injury, over the last year and a half I had watched Tony’s daughter get into the Savanah College of Art and Design (SCAD), one of the best art schools in the nation. Tony took advantage of his daughter going to college by bringing IFI to their job fairs, letting him recruit even more interns for the art department. I watched as Tony whisked the other female interns off to Miami and New Orleans on his private jet. Other interns, and even Tony himself pressured me to join them in Louisiana. I wanted so desperately to travel and join in the revelry but knew the possibilities of what might happen thousands of miles from home with unlimited alcohol. My intuition had never trusted Tony, and I worry what might have happened if I had gone against my gut and put myself in those dangerous situations. After I declined the New Orleans invitation, I wasn’t invited again.
In the early months of 2016 I tried hard to get hired at any other design firm, no matter if they were mediocre or not. I told my boss my plan was to find another job for the summer, and he enthusiastically agreed with my decision. The only place I had an interview with ended up having budget cuts, and was unable to hire anyone. Throughout my job hunting I kept my manager in the loop. I remember the day I told him that I couldn’t find another job, and he explained to me in great detail in front of my team and another coworker that they had hired another intern, and there was no physical room for me anymore. My heart sank, but I’d become used to being pushed to the side. I wrongly assumed that I would still be invited to photograph VEX World’s. Everyone constantly sang my praises about the images I captured in 2015, so I had no doubt that I would be in attendance. How many times could I be hurt by the same people? At least a few more. Since I had been explicitly told that I would no longer be at IFI, I waited to learn when my last day was. Surely, if they knew there wasn’t room for me, they knew when I would no longer be needed. I was wrong again. After asking several times, I told my boss when my last day would be. He responded with the actual last day I would be around, which was a month after the date I told him. I guess they couldn’t afford to have one less intern for 4 weeks. As my last day approached, I again wrongly assumed that people would actually want to celebrate my “send off.” I had given this company more than 5 years of my life and practically my soul. For every intern’s last day, a large group would all go out to eat. Sometimes there were donuts, but there was always an event of sorts. On my last day, everyone was busy with meetings. Only a handful of my coworkers and friends joined me in going out to eat. My boss would draw up cards to be passed around and signed for birthdays or other things. In my 5 years I only received 2 cards. I tried to stay connected to my friends at IFI after I left, but they all slowly drifted away. When I decided to move out of state 2 years later, I invited my old coworkers to one last lunch. The only person to not respond or show up was Grant. When I asked why, I couldn’t even receive a ‘won’t be able to make it.’ I was met with “We’re adults now and you need to realize we run in different circles and won’t see each other as much.” I only hung out with him a handful of times in the two years after IFI. This was Grant’s last chance to stay in my life in any capacity, and I finally had the strength to tell him “it would be healthier for me if you would let me let you go.” I blocked Grant on all platforms, and felt myself take a deep breath for the first time in ages. I graduated from therapy last week, and am finally at a point in my life where I can write this story and not lose myself in the darkness.