The Alumni Mentor

The Alumni Mentor: A look into why you should wait to be a mentor on your former team or other FRC teams

As a former member of a FRC team in Lancaster CA, I have seen my fair share of mentors that were either associated with my team or other teams. Many of the mentors that were on my team were industry professionals such as engineers, carpenters, electricians, teachers, and stay at home parents. Each one had something strong to bring to the table and brought their life experiences to share with us. According to, a mentor is “an experienced and trusted advisor”. In my opinion, a recent high school graduate should not return to mentor a team right away. They need to learn more about the outside world before they can be an effective mentor.

About Me
I was on a FRC team for all 4 years of my high school experience (2006-2009). When I graduated, I went to a local community college to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering. I would stop by my former team more often then I should have thinking I was being a mentor. The first year out of high school, I decided to volunteer for the FIRST Los Angeles Regional. This regional was always my favorite to go to because of the atmosphere and tough competition. After I started the volunteer work, I went less and less to my former team. I continued to volunteer for the regional year after year throughout my college career. I transferred to a 4-year university in 2012 to continue my Mechanical Engineering degree. In 2014, I found myself having a lot of extra time on my hands. I decided I wanted to “mentor” a team and share my experiences. I joined a FRC Team out of Redondo Beach CA. I stayed with this team throughout the whole build and competition season. The next year I was not able to mentor again due to getting an Internship that occupied a large amount of my time. I graduated from my university in December of 2015 and started a job as a Design Engineer in Santa Clarita CA. I decided after I graduated that I wanted to take my volunteer work with FIRST to the next step. I was able to become a FIRST Technical Advisor in 2017, which allows me to help many regionals. This is what I am doing currently.

My Experiences with Mentors (In and Out of FIRST)
Some of the best mentors I have ever met were people who wanted to give back to their community. They had been working for several years (7+) and was able to share the knowledge they have learned. Even when I was in college, the professors that I learned the most from were the ones that did teaching part time and worked full time as an engineer. They had the knowledge that mattered to a student working to become a working professional engineer. The professors that went straight from graduating with a PHD to teaching were only able to teach the subject they were assigned too, nothing more. When I become a “mentor” for the Redondo Team, I found out quickly that I was doing it more for myself then I was doing it for the students. I missed the 6-week build time, the competition, and the success of making a robot. I was looking to fill that void. Looking back on my experience with them, I regret doing it because I felt like I did not add any value to the students there. I also regret going back to my former team after I graduated for the same reasons. I had nowhere near enough life experience to effect the students in a positive way. I feel like I may have taken certain experiences that I had while on my team away from the current students. I have seen many recent high school graduates go back to mentor their former teams, from the outside it looks like they are really making a positive impact on a team, but there is a difference between helping and mentoring. I feel I did not mentor the Redondo team; I helped them build a robot and relived my high school days. What I did feel good about was when I was mentoring the middle school students in the FIRST Lego League. I did this for about 2 years after I left high school. I feel like I left a positive impact on these students and the students and teachers really appreciated it.

My Experience Volunteering for Regionals
My first role as a volunteer at a regional was Field Reset/Repair. Most new volunteers start out in this position due to little experience needed but a handful required to make an event successful. I quickly realized what it takes to make regionals happen. When a regional is running smoothly, you can barely notice the volunteers because they are so good. When I was on my FRC team, I went to eight regionals and two championships. I could not tell you about any of the volunteers I ran into or met. The same is now when I volunteer, I can assure you no one remembers me after the regionals. This has humbled me and has shown me that teams are just fine without me being involved with their teams. Over the next 5 years, I have done many other roles including my current role as FTA. This is the single most challenging role I have ever done in my life. The entire event relies on you being at your best. Again, after the event, no teams remember me. I gladly accept the job that goes somewhat unnoticed after the event. It gives me great satisfaction that I am able to put on a good event for the students who worked so hard to compete there. I know that the experience I am getting with volunteering will make me a better mentor one day, a mentor needs to learn not to be the center of attention and go unnoticed sometimes.

My Advice to Recent High School Grads
Take some time away from the FIRST team environment (5 years minimum). Become a professional at something or get a degree. The FIRST teams are a great way to get introduced to being a professional but it is not a path to become a professional. If you stay mentoring a team, you yourself never learn how the real world works. You will become a better professional by leaving for a while, and when you are a better professional, you will be a better mentor. FIRST mission statement is to create the next generation of leaders; you are fulfilling this statement by going out and becoming a professional at something. Volunteer for Regionals/District Events, you will gain more respect for the FIRST organization and become more humble from the experience. You can do more for the students by volunteering then you will mentoring them. I guarantee once you volunteer for these events, you will be addicted to it and want to volunteer for every competition. If you still have a crazy itch to mentor, go for the FLL or Jr. FLL teams. They can always use mentors and the kids will look up to you. Lead by example when mentoring FLL or Jr. FLL, these kids will follow your every move. In my opinion, it is better for yourself and the current students on the team for you not to return right away. Let the current students learn the mistakes that you learned, let the Mentors on the team mentor as they mentored you. I promise the team will be just fine without you. I plan to return to mentor a team one day, but I am still not ready and still learning about the world. For now, I help where I know I can do the most good and give back.

P.S. My writing and grammar skills are weak, I apologize for it now

1 Like

I’m sorry, what? You want all HS grads to take five years off of FRC before returning?

College mentors are an incredibly necessary part of FRC. I’m not saying that because I am one, I’m saying that because I was shaped by them. Among the people that have taught me the most, about not just robots, but life, are the college mentors I’ve gotten to work with. These people changed my life, very drastically for the better.

I can tell you that without college mentors, many, many teams would never have the impact they have now – some maybe even folding.

It is so much easier for HS students to connect with college mentors than adult mentors. There is something to be said about approachable mentors, and I genuinely strive to recreate the opportunities that I was given as a student.

How many rookies would not have been created under your proposed five year gap? I can name at least one.

Maybe a five year gap worked for you, and I’m happy you realized that. Taking a one year break probably isn’t a bad idea for most people, and I recognize that (I more or less took one myself). But I don’t think you’re fully recognizing the impact that college mentors have on this program.

College mentors are dedicated, passionate, and talented. Don’t burn that away.

1 Like

TL;DR: Everyone’s path in life is different, but I feel that the college mentors of my FRC career made the biggest impact.

On 6844, none of us mentors hold degrees or full-time jobs. The oldest mentor we have is 23 years old. All of us are FRC alumni. Never once have I ever thought that I am less able to inspire students because of my age.

In fact, as I think about my experiences in high school, I think about one of my college mentors - Carl Springli. I learned a lot from him. In ways he doesn’t (and will never) understand, his influence was a significant factor in my choice of major, school, and lots of other life decisions. I wanted to be like him then and I want to be like him now.

Included below is a screenshot of an Instagram post from one of my students (name withheld for privacy). It’s pretty precious to me. It’s one of those little things that makes all of the long, long days and nights and stress all worth it. I like to think that my presence on the team helped her feel as inspired as she was. I don’t mean to talk myself or any of my other fellow college mentors up too much, but if one of us hadn’t been on the team, I’m not sure that we would have made it to the regional. Each of us was absolutely integral.

Link to screenshot:

That is a good read on this subject from a couple of years ago.

I’ve held an implicit distinction (in my head) between “college mentors” and
“industry mentors”.

In my own experience (My first year mentoring was Stronghold, which was also my first year working out of college), college mentors (a.k.a. alumni) often had a much better grasp on the types of things that are typically done in FRC, whereas industry mentors have a better grasp on how to do things properly, plus a lot of built-up knowledge from years of working.

For example, my first year, I knew how to wire motor controllers, what they’re supposed to do, and how to power/send signals to them, but I had absolutely no idea what the FRC standards were. College mentors help bridge the gap between broad industry knowledge and FRC-specific knowledge.

I think the college mentors are a good resource to help lead students by example, since the students understand that the college mentor was in their shoes very recently.

I don’t think any FRC team should only have college mentors, but I think that some FRC teams can get away with only having industry mentors (our team has a college mentor stop in every now and then, but other than that it’s just industry mentors).

There are also just some aspects of knowledge, maturity, and planning that can only come from experience that college mentors haven’t yet been exposed to. That being said, college mentors are so much further ahead in life than I was when I was in college, which will only make them better mentors once they have industry experience.

I know at least a few people who have made huge impact as mentors right after graduating high school. I personally waited out my freshman year before rejoining the fray - definitely a good decision as I was still adjusting to college life. However, I don’t usually caution anyone against mentoring FRC teams. As far as I’m concerned, there are very few ways young mentors can “take away” from students’ experiences; the FRC community needs as many mentors as we can get.

If you’re a young alum mentor and it seems that the only way you can help is by doing things that would “normally be done by a student”, it could mean that your team has things relatively covered and that you should find another team where your skills are needed and where your mentorship can influence more students. Often times, for FRC teams, having mentors who have experience on highly functioning or inspiring teams is just as important as having mentors with industry experience.

Different mentors have different roles at different points in their lives. As head coach I won’t allow a new grad to be a mentor, but a year or so away is plenty. I’ll take what I can get, and appreciate what people are willing to give.

I also recommend taking a hiatus to my graduating students. I did and it was immensely valuable. I participated in FSAE which dramatically broadened my horizons.

The Grasshoppers have no college mentors, but a majority of our mentors are alumni.

Thank you OP for your perspective. I appreciate the thought and effort you put into this post even if I don’t entirely agree with it. I find I can relate rather strongly to your post as someone who never really took a break-- I started mentoring an FTC team my freshman year of college. In particular, I think you hit the nail on the head for a lesson it took me a bit to learn about mentoring-- fundamentally, it is about making a positive impact on the students on the team. If you can’t honestly say that’s the case, there’s an issue. I respect the self-awareness it takes to realize when that isn’t the case. Personally, it took me two years of mentoring after high school to look at my involvement with the FRC team I was with and realize that I wasn’t an effective mentor in that situation, for a variety of reasons.

That being said, I think there are clear benefits for both teams and young alumni to continue mentoring fairly soon after graduating, as outlined by some of the previous posters. It can be extremely difficult at times to bridge the gap between “real” engineering and FIRST engineering, even for extremely intelligent people. Many things simply don’t transfer well due to the unique constraints of a FIRST team. For some teams, this bridge is more necessary or useful than others.

It is my opinion that success in mentoring as a college-aged adult is hugely dependent on the person and team. Having college aged mentors can create a more exciting and fast-paced atmosphere, or it can be very toxic for the team, all depending on how the team handles it.

As a graduate, there are many options for continuing to be involved with FIRST, and an individual’s choice with regards to these is deeply personal-- what made sense for me didn’t make sense for my best friend, or any of the other 39 people that were on the team and graduated with me. It’s not a matter of right or wrong, but one of an individual’s own priorities and life goals. I’m happy it mostly worked out in my case, but I’m not under any illusions that my experience or preference is universally applicable.

I want to point out that toxicity is not usually a function of age or level of experience; it is mostly related to personality traits such as lack of concern for the opinions of others and propensity to make people feel stressed, unvalued, or unable/unwilling to speak up. In my experience, recently-graduated alumni mentors have usually been shy, contributing to the team in the areas of their expertise and not really setting the team culture. They’ve been more reactive than proactive. Team culture problems (and successes!) have usually stemmed from either the policies of the established adult leadership or the student leadership, not from college students that come by to share their knowledge. Of course, my data set is small, and I’m sure there are instances where recent alum mentors have negatively impacted overall team culture. I have to jump through at least one mental hoop to imagine it though.

There is definitely something to be said for taking a break between being a FIRST student and a mentor. Do I necessarily agree that it needs to be five years? No.

As an alumni mentor, I find that I’m able to connect with my students… and I like to think my students feel the same way! My experiences provide a different type of experience and mentor ship than our industry mentors as I have experience talking to judges, scouting, etc. I find this is where a lot of my value as a mentor is, from this FIRST insight.

Being in FIRST provides different opportunities to students in post-secondary and secondary alike. Notably, I didn’t go directly from being a student to a mentor as I wasn’t on an FRC team for grades 11 and 12 so my personal experience there is different. I think that break helped me, but mostly because it meant I had an easier time transitioning between being a student and a mentor.

If possible, I think something for a recent frc alum to consider is swapping teams. You had found a role as a student within a team and that’s not what’s in question, but that role may not be there for you in the same capacity when you’re a mentor. Other teams, however, may have a void that’s just where you fit in! It also allows you to meet new people which is a large part of what post-secondary is about. But this may not apply to everyone.

Within university, I spent some time not being a part of any extra-curriculars before jumping into mentoring, which I also think helped as it taught me more about not living at home, fending for myself, etc. I tried to join FSAE first, but found the environment of FIRST much more welcoming and something I was happy to return to.

I’m a university mentor, and I don’t regret my decision. I’m also a FIRST volunteer, and I don’t regret that decision either. I’m a fan of doing what makes you happy - and if being a mentor brings you joy, then go for it. If being a volunteer brings you joy, go for it. Take a break if you need, but don’t force yourself to wait 5+ years to enjoy something.

FIRST has a place for everyone should you wish to have one, and when you wish to have one.

With all due respect to the OP, I would caution against casting such a wide net over FRC participants.

I ended up making the decision to mentor a team during my first year of college (this current year, for clarity). Our mentor base is such that I was able to make a significant impact. Granted, I commit far less time than I did as a student, but I feel like this is a fair tradeoff for continuing to be present in FRC, and it’s given me perspective on what other teams besides my high school team are like. At this point, I don’t feel like my academic presence has been negatively affected, seeing as I only began mentorship during the second semester.

Are there people out there who could benefit from time off of FRC? Definitely. How long varies from person to person, and some could very well be 5 years. That’s really up to each person to decide for themselves. I know there are a great many teams out there that wouldn’t exist or wouldn’t be as successful as they are without any college mentors.

College Mentors have been a huge part of my team ever since I joined back in 2012. They were the ones who taught me, and they’re the main reason why i’m still involved in FRC today, as a college student. The cycle continues.

From my experience, college mentors tend to have closer relationships with students, because they were students themselves not long ago. Students can relate a lot to those mentors, because they are closer to college than they are to older mentors.

Easy, I’m not claiming toxicity is limited to college-aged mentors. I’ve dealt with a variety of mentors who were toxic in different ways, but the one that sticks out more than anything in my mind is a college-aged mentor that came back to the team and attempted to completely dominate the build process, making many of the students very uncomfortable and ultimately harming the team. I think there are some unique brands of negative impact that need to be managed for each type of mentor (industry, alum, parent), and was merely pointing out that there are some specific things to be careful about with college-aged mentors, much as there are things to watch out for with industry or parent mentors.

I think “take a break if you want a break” is a great suggestion.

Many students will benefit from trying something new and come back better prepared with a broader background.

But as mentioned here, that’s not what everyone wants or needs. It is kind of like saying “Study Engineering!”… for some of my best students doing an apprenticeship was the right option, while others found success in Business or other fields. There’s no one “right” or “best” path, but I’m glad your path worked out for you!


Our team was essentially founded by a group of Ohio State students. They had too many mentors for the one team they were mentoring (677) and one of them was an alumnus of the school where I teach. He contacted us and helped us found the team. We have had OSU student mentors every year of our existence.

We also have older working professionals. As several posters noted, they bring different strengths. Older mentors often have more technical skills. College students often have more FIRST specific tech skills. In general kids are more likely to listen to a reasoned explanation from someone they see as an adult. On the other hand what college students say often has a more significant impact. In general, just as with teaching, I have found that some people are better at mentoring than others. Everyone can get better at it, but some people have more talent for it. Probably the single best mentor we have had started out as a team dad. When his younger child graduated, he just never gave up helping. Probably our next best mentor is a tie between two of our alumni, who came right back and started mentoring us. They had electrical and programming skills we needed. They were also both really, really good at making connections with kids.

We have had older mentors come to our team who did not gel with our team’s operational paradigm. We have also had younger mentors who couldn’t change roles from the student days. I do encourage kids to mentor, and to try mentoring other teams first. I find that it is easier for them to develop a mentor-student relationship with students who were not their teammates the year before. But for some, mentoring us is easier from a schedule and/or transportation standpoint, and for the most part when our alumni come back they do well. A lot of them end up mentoring us for a year or two and then moving on to mentor other teams in Central Ohio. OSUFIRST tries to help teams find college student mentors who fit the skill sets needed by the teams in the Columbus area.

As for my professors, in all of my time as an undergrad and a grad student (twice), plus the many classes I have taken after becoming a teacher, I have had around 80 professors and instructors. The best ones were the ones that cared about their teaching and worked at doing it well. I have had professors who worked over 20 years before becoming college professors, professors who were currently working outside academia in the area they were teaching and professors who had never been outside of academia. The good ones were smart and worked hard to be good teachers. Our society has a very strong tendency to discount teaching as a skill. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t teach.” This is an oft expressed sentiment (whether or not those words are used) that show, unintentionally or not, disdain for teaching. My mom used to turn that around to say “Those can’t teach, shouldn’t.” I do think that my experience (even if only for a couple years) in graduate school and as a consultant before I became a teacher helped make me better. But I also know that my first couple of years as a teacher is what really made me competent at the job. So I don’t know that a different set of experiences (say starting teaching earlier, or maybe teaching in a different kind of school) might not have had even more positive influence on my ability to teach.

I’m not going to type a lengthy response on this topic now, as I’ve done that too many times in the past already.

What I will say is: while it’s totally fine to continue mentoring as a college student (I did it), be aware that your body and mind have limits and that it is potentially much easier to run into these limits as a college student than as a high-school student. Burnout is real.

From the role of a college mentor I can see where you come from. I spent 4 years of college mentoring the team I graduated from. There were certainly seasons that I wasn’t as active with the team because I was busy with school. While I understand where your coming from, I think it breaks down to what your looking for as an individual person.

That all being said, I do believe it is important to know that the transition from student to mentor is what i found the most difficult. It can be difficult having your team, students and mentors, recognize that you are no longer a student on the team. You are definitely correct, that it can be difficult to earn that credibility from students and mentors. I think that is the most difficult part of being a college mentor.

If that is your biggest fear, it may be worth mentoring another team that you are not an alumni off. This provides you with a fresh start with a team that doesn’t know you and may be easier to build credibility of being a mentor. This will also help reduce the chances of mentors still seeing you as a student.

Ultimately it is a challenging decision, and will be different for everyone. I think mentoring provides college students a great method of expanding their professional network while seeking jobs and internships. But it can be difficult making the jump from student to mentor.

If you want a serious shot at grad school just don’t mentor for your first two years of college. Better safe than sorry. If you don’t care about your GPA so much… proceed with caution.

You’re probably right about that. My lowest semester GPA in college was Winter 2012, when I was also the most involved with mentoring 3322. I was putting 20 hour weeks in with the robotics team, while doing 18 credits (the max) of classwork. I learned my lesson the hard way. I made sure to do two things in the following seasons: back off from robotics somewhat, and take fewer credits during robotics season. I went down to 13 credits in Winter 2013 and a part-time 8 credits in Winter 2014, which brought my GPA afloat and kept me from burning out too hard.