Hey Chief Delphi,
I would have preferred to avoid making this post altogether, and honestly I’m quite terrified to, but we’re pretty desperate - we need advice from the FIRST community on handling my current situation. This does get quite lengthy as I have much to say, and I really would appreciate if it was read entirely though, but for anyone who would rather I skip straight to the point:
**tldr; A number of problems exist on our team as the result of the control that one “inner circle” of people holds over the team. People in this inner circle get special treatment and act disrespectful towards other students, knowing that there will be no repercussion because of their parents’ heavy involvement as authority figures. Students who speak out against the clear favoritism only get accused of starting trouble. Nepotism always plays a role in deciding who gets leadership roles on the team; kids who aren’t “favorites” or friends of the favorites are overlooked regardless of skill or competency. Everyone is sick of it but feels helpless to do anything about it. Help.
You may have noticed I’m not affiliated with a specific team or state; I’m only doing so as to preserve my anonymity as much as possible to prevent backlash from my team. Any situations I describe will be vague enough to not determine my team affiliation, but specific enough to voice my (and many team members) concerns. I can say I’m a veteran engineer on my team who’s been actively involved each build season. This post was physically written by only one person, but is a collaboration of over a dozen team members voicing their concerns. This is going to be a long post, and perhaps this isn’t the place for it - let me know.
FIRST is an amazing community. As a freshman, I truly saw it as a foundation dedicated to giving everyone an equal jump-start in the engineering field. As someone in a lower-class, single parent family, this concept was literally life saving. It was amazing. It didn’t matter where I was from- I was treated based on the content of my character and had just as much confidence placed in me as those from trade schools that lived much more comfortably. My social skills skyrocketed, my love for strategy grew, and I strived in kinesthetic learning.
On the largest scale, this fantastic atmosphere has remained strong in the FIRST community. In recent years, unfortunately, I have noticed a shift in attitude on my team since specific members have joined - one that affects (almost) everyone negatively.
In recent years, wealthier families have become more influential in many decisions that should be mentor and student driven, and I feel this has unbalanced the equality of this team. It has nothing to do with race or gender, but rather financial stability and “social status”.** To put it simply, my team is quite painfully structured by nepotism.** Children of influential parents or related to mentors - regardless of skill - do not have to meet any travel qualifications, including fundraising $ and grade requirements, while other students must maintain strict grade averages and fundraising in order to compete. Unfortunately, this is very hush-hush and most rookies are unaware of this. Everyday treatment is also drastically different towards these “elite” students and their friends as opposed to the average team member - 95% of which I’m very proud to say are brilliant, hard-working people.
I’ve spoken to many of my team members - more than 30, actually - who agree with my standpoint and can cite many examples of skewed judgement by team mentors due to the phantom elevated status of ones often accused of wrongdoings. Unfortunately, they’re all absolutely terrified of being picked out and practically bullied to quit if they speak out, no matter what proof they have. If students directly approach a lead mentor with a concern involving unfair treatment, they can be sure it will not be held in confidence and while mentors will treat them differently - negatively - life on the team continues as it did because “there’s no war in Ba Sing Sae” and the problems are not made known to the majority of the team. Small groups of students have banded together and spoken out about:
-mentor involvement (mentors ignoring student’s ideas, telling them they’re wrong without explanation, and being quite negative and controlling over students)
- these “elite” student team members being openly disrespectful towards multiple team subgroups because they personally dislike some members, regardless of their competence
The response to both problems was the promise of a reprimand - to no avail. In fact, the behavior became worse and more detrimental towards students. This has resulted in many members internalizing their problems and becoming afraid and distrusting of mentors, which honestly damages their mental health over time.
“On a FIRST team, a mentor’s goal should be to actively share his/her knowledge and experiences with the team to help foster intellectual growth. Provide students with opportunities to make choices, both good and bad.” (FIRST Mentoring Guide) On our team, students are rarely allowed to voice opinions or make independent choices, and are essentially taught that unless they are seen as “special” their opinion won’t matter.
Because I don’t want to write you a novel, here’s a list compiled by multiple team members of problematic events that occur often/have occured on my team and have been complained about with no repercussions to the offenders:
- “favorite” students blatantly bullying and belittling other members publicly on social media about their private, personal problems
- to earn a spot on the drive team or in other competition leadership positions, prospective students must go through an interview process. Unfortunately, some of the interviewers are directly related to students who interview for these positions, and these students are automatically selected regardless of skill (obvious conflict of interest)
-a student (not me) emailed our lead mentor specifically about their concern with mentor over-involvement. They stated multiple times that they were in no way attempting be disrespectful, and were truly concerned. The mentor read the email and promptly ignored it.
- allowance of “favorite” male + female team members to display extreme PDA and go MIA together at events, while reprimanding a homosexual couple on the team for even speaking to each other too often - even if conversation was clearly strategic or game-related.
- choosing a friend of favored team members over a seasoned, experienced veteran for drive team, though the unfavored was clearly superior in skill and ability.
- mentor refusing to address another mentor’s inappropriate conduct (negative attitude towards students) due to direct relation
- influential parents being allowed to openly gossip about team members
- a team member being told by a favored student that they were not allowed to travel due to being a “liability to the team” simply because they were diagnosed with depression.
- mentors disregarding student complaints about team leaders because of their personal relations to the leader, and instead accusing the concerned student(s) of only trying to start trouble.
- mentors physically working on the robot with favored students after meetings and making decisions without consulting the rest of the team.
- mentors purposely delaying student requests to order certain robot components because they personally disagree with design ideas
-students are repeatedly told to respect mentors when vice versa is rarely applicable.
- genuine, respectful feedback from involved veteran members is taken as disrespectful by mentors with no logical explanation other than disagreement.
- if a student is bold enough to speak out in front of the entire team (often berated as “attention-seeking”) the problem is fixed only temporarily and mentor behavior becomes significantly more negative and passive-aggressive towards that student.
- absolutely none of the above applies to favored students. Their opinions are always respected, regardless of their behavior towards others. Any negative accusations made by favored students about other team members, regarding behavior for example, are presumed true and immediately acted upon regardless of the fact that there’s often no evidence of these supposed wrongdoings. They are literally guilty until proven innocent based solely on the word of these favorite students.
**Note: not to say that unfavored students are perfectly behaved; there are some genuine instances of students misbehaving. Rather, the point being made is that if an average student so much as says “no” to certain mentors or favored students on a bad day, there’s hell to pay.
Finally, here is my question: For the love of God, what are we supposed to do?! I care about many of my team members deeply, and have dedicated much of my time to FRC. I am tired of participating on a team where the huge majority of veteran members speak often of quitting due to their frustration in being belittled. I’m unwilling to let such members erode the amazing concept that FIRST is and ruin it for many of my friends, most of which know that a team is not supposed to be led this way, and FIRST is about equal opportunity and growth. I also don’t want to be part of a team that causes severe stress and anxiety simply because of who I, or any of my team members are as individuals. I have a desperate hope that this is truly not what FIRST is about, and that 30+ of my team members and I are not overreacting as we are often told.
**Please, if you have any advice or suggestions about what steps we could take to amend this ugly situation, we would love to hear it. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this, and any replies (public or private) are hugely appreciated.