"Rather than making decisions that you think will make people like you more, or saying things that you think they want to hear, do the things that will make the difference, and say the things that need to be said to get the job done and done well."
A girl who builds robots? YUP!
Meet Alyssa Vallese -- high school student, champion on the Robotics Team and creator of a school program that helps children learn the fundamentals of wiring, building, programming and pneumatics used ALL OVER San Diego. But that's not all folks, she also volunteers on missions in Mexico and with local charities… AND did we mention she speaks 3 languages?!
Wow! This girl does it ALL. Go Alyssa!
Every Ella: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Alyssa Vallese: I’m seventeen years old and I live in San Diego, California. I’m a Senior at The Francis Parker School, which I have been attending since I was in 5th grade. I’m still hearing back from colleges right now, but I plan to major in Mechanical Engineering wherever I go. I’m on the Varsity Francis Parker Dance Team, and I did theatre for about 6 years. I speak Spanish and Mandarin Chinese, and during the summer I work at Play-Well Teknologies teaching little kids how to build robots. My favorite feel-good movie is Sweet Home Alabama (those who know me know that if they see me watching it something is wrong or upsetting me), my favorite food is either dungeness crab, shellfish or sushi, and when I go to the beach I always get into the water, no matter how cold it is.
When and how did you become interested in science, technology, engineering and math?
Looking back on my childhood, I’ve always been subconsciously interested in engineering, even if at the time I was focused on Disney Princesses, dance and theatre. When I was in second grade my father and I made my my project on Saturn move by attaching a little battery and motor to a rubber band that spun a rod, moving Saturn around the Sun. When I was in 5th grade I found myself spending all of my spare time in Parker’s woodshop. It never clicked though, so when I finally got to my freshman year of high school, I still had no idea what I wanted to to. An upperclassman approached me about joining the robotics team to assist with corporate sponsorships and community outreach. He thought I would be good at it because of my social and bubbly personality and the fact that I was more personable than a lot of the “natural” engineers on the team. I thought it would be good to get involved on campus (a cute upperclassman was asking me to join his club) so I joined.
Then one day that fall, I was working on my computer on some infographics in our robotics shop, and he was working in the back of the room. All the sudden I looked up and I saw some smoke rising from where he was working. I ran over yelling “STOP, STOP! THERE’S SMOKE! THERE’S A FIRE” He smirked, and then informed me that it was good smoke, it was smoke that was supposed to be there. He was soldering, which is when you join two wires together by melting a filler metal between the two that is conductive. I asked if he could teach me, and I was hooked. I served as the Electrical lead on my team for the following two years. I am now the VP of Build (meaning that I am in charge of the production of our robot) and I plan to major in Mechanical Engineering when I attend college.
What do you love most about being on the robotics team?
I always say that being on a FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) team is the best simulation of real life a high schooler can get, and that’s what I love most about being on my team. Not only have I learned how to solder, weld, and how to mold carbon fiber and wire electrical circuits, but I’ve also learned how to write business grants, give pitches to potential sponsors and project manage. I’ve learned how to be a leader, not only to little kids at outreach events but to the underclassmen on the team that look up to me, the same way that I used to look up to the upperclassman boy that convinced me to join the team. I’ve learned how to communicate effectively, develop and teach curriculum and how to work with a team of people regardless of the drama behind the scenes. I love being able to see how I, along with the 3 other seniors leading the team this year, has affected the team and how much we’ve grown as a group.
What piece of work have you done on the team that you’re the most proud of?
Aside from very specific technical carbon fiber panels and electrical panels, my favorite piece of work I’ve done for the team has been the development of our Family Science Night program. My freshman year, I decided that I wanted to bring STEM to my underfunded elementary school, where 50% of the kids in attendance are living below the poverty line. So I designed a hands on program which allowed kids to learn the basics of wiring, building, programming and pneumatics in rotations taught by my teammates and I. We brought it to the school, and it was a hit! We had 100+ kids, and there was even a local newspaper article written about it. After that, we decided to expand the program, and now we run it in Elementary schools all over San Diego County, and get to teach kids the basics of engineering in fun, hands on ways. I know that the program will continue to flourish even after I graduate, and I couldn’t be more proud that I was able to get it off the ground.
Women are hugely underrepresented in the engineering and mathematics workforce. Is this something you also see at your school and do you hope to change that?
I absolutely hope to continue to bridge that gap. Having an all women leadership team this year has been a big step in our community. While on Team 2485 (my robotics team’s assigned number) we make gender equality in STEM a priority for all members, male or female. Walking into competitions I’m always very well aware that I am one of the very few at the competition. The first time I was at a robotics competition I was told by a 60 year old white male judge, “You must be in public relations, you’re so well spoken and you’re so pretty and put together!” Sexism in STEM fields is not only seen when little girls are told to play with dolls rather than legos, it’s also seen in the adult workplace, with people like Tim Hunt saying that women have no place in a lab because all they do is “fall in love and cry when they are criticized.”
With this type of mentality, it's no wonder that women are so hugely underrepresented in the STEM workplace. That is why I believe that as much encouragement that we can give to young girls to get involved in STEM, through amazing programs like Girls Who Code and Girls Science, young girls are able to see their full potential in STEM at a young age, encouraging them to continue on with the field rather than closing the door before they’ve been given the opportunity to see what they are capable of.
You’re also passionate about service and helping others in need. Why is that so important to you?
One of the first times that I travelled to Mexico on a Mission trip I was asked a question that I’ve constantly thought about since. Why is it that we are so fortunate enough to have been born on that side of the fence, when they’ve done nothing that would condemn them to have been born on this side of the fence? Ever since then I’ve come to the realization that yes, sometimes people’s poor decisions are what land them in impoverished, horrible situations. However, much, if not most, poverty and suffering (like most success) is simply a product of where one was born and the opportunities they were given. I was fortunate to have been born into a loving and forgiving family, and have been surrounded by people that love me unconditionally no matter what my entire life, and I’m certain that their love is what has led me to where I am today. That’s why showing love through giving, service and helping others in need is so important to me, regardless of the person or the situation.
Tell us about some of the work you’ve done to make a difference.
The work that I am by far the most proud of is my work with Project Mercy. Project Mercy is a non-profit organization based in San Diego that builds homes for impoverished families without homes that are living in shantytowns only about 30-40 minutes from San Diego in Tijuana (Get involved! They’re a great organization and not only do they need donations but they also need people to build the homes). My team heard about Project Mercy through our school's Interact club (community service based club) and immediately decided to get involved. Every October, we travel with Project Mercy to Mexico, and we build two houses in one day, getting to use our technical robotics skills to give back to the community.
My first year at Project Mercy, I met a little girl named Yajaira. I spent my morning with her and other kids that live in the town, conveniently I’m fluent in Spanish so language barriers weren’t an issue. That morning, Ysabella took me to where she was currently living with her 6 siblings and both of her parents. It was a ragged tent that was made with the intent of holding 4 people, but she was so proud of her corner of the tent, and so joyous when she was showing me that she had her own blanket. After that I went back with my team and finished the house, and being able to present a new, sturdy painted home to her was one of the greatest moments of my life.
What are your goals and ambitions for the future?
I love engineering, but my goal is to be able to use my engineering skills to better the world that we live in, not just to sit in an office and do math for the rest of my life. So my goal is to get my degree in Mechanical Engineering and then after working for a few years in a company as an engineer, work for the business side of the country, finding out the best ways to use the company's resources and technology to better society.
What do you like to do for fun?
Well I live in Southern California, so the beach is always a great option to me! Spending time with my amazing friends is always the best though, and I’ll have fun with them no matter what we’re doing.
Name one woman who inspires you.
One of the many women that inspire me daily is Melissa Fay. She is one of my robotics mentors, and has been a key component to getting me through high school in one piece. She has been working in the high tech industry for about 27 years, creating technologies and then selling them to companies such as Microsoft, and running with all of the men that are at the top of those types of organizations. Her constant drive to win, and to love people boundlessly has inspired me for the three years that I’ve known her, and I hope to someday be as courageous and successful but still humble as she is.
If you could meet any female celebrity, who would it be and why?
If I could meet any female celebrity, I would want to meet Jennifer Lawrence. My senior quote for my high school’s yearbook is “I’m over trying to find the ‘adorable’ way to state my opinion and still be likable!” which is from Lawrence’s letter about gender equality. I used to spend a lot of time trying to make people like me for being something I’m not, because I didn’t like being called bossy or a control freak. I realized somewhere along the line that those words are just ways that society and people make women feel bad for taking control and getting the job done, and I like to think that I’ve started making decisions to better the world around me rather than making the world around me like me. I’m still working on it, but it seems like Lawrence has gotten the hang of it, so I’d love to meet her sometime and get some tips.
If you could give one piece of advice to girls, what would it be?
Not everyone is going to like you. That's okay. Do it anyway.
The sooner you accept that not everyone is going to like you no matter what you do, and you start making decisions to better yourself, the people that you love, your community, and the world, the better your outcome is going to be. Rather than making decisions that you think will make people like you more, or saying things that you think they want to hear, do the things that will make the difference, and say the things that need to be said to get the job done and done well. You’re going to be called a bitch. You’re going to be called bossy. That’s the world we live in. Embrace it and prove them wrong, do the job the absolute best you can, loving everyone you meet along the way, no matter how hard they try to stop you.