Passion for STEM lands two young people White House invite

Feb 10, 2016

It’s not every day you’re invited to the State of the Union Address, much less as a personal guest of First Lady Michelle Obama. So there was no playbook to follow for FIRST Alums Lydia Doza and Oscar Vazquez, as they traveled from their homes in rural Oregon and Fort Worth, Texas, to the White House last month.

Lydia, 24, a software engineering student at the Oregon Institute of Technology, is originally from Anchorage, Alaska. Her upbringing in three native tribes – Inupiaq, Tsimshian, and Haida – taught her at an early age the value of education and the importance of mentorship. Her passion for engineering came later, through her high school robotics team. Today, Lydia helps Native American youth engage in disciplines across the STEM fields, and also works as an event organizer for Oregon Tech’s Engineering Ambassadors, encouraging kids age 3 through 18 to pursue careers in engineering.

Oscar, 29, is an Army veteran, STEM leader, and DREAMer (a person who meets the criteria outlined in the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors [DREAM] Act). Like many DREAMers, Oscar came to the United States as a child in search of a better life. From age 12 when he moved from Mexico to Phoenix, Arizona, Oscar excelled in the classroom. At Carl Hayden High School, he led an unlikely group of under-resourced Hispanic high school students who took on an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) team in an underwater robotics competition and won. That opportunity led to a college education in the STEM field, earning a B.S.E. in mechanical engineering from Arizona State University. He later enlisted in the U.S. Army. He now works for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railways as a business analyst in a web app development team, and is a passionate advocate on behalf of expanding STEM opportunities for Latino and other under-represented youth.

On January 12, Lydia and Oscar were two of 22 people from around the country to sit with the  First Lady, in her guest box,  during the President’s final State of the Union Address As part of their trip, the two FIRST Alums met with leaders on Capitol Hill to discuss the importance of promoting STEM initiatives.

“It quickly became clear that we weren’t just there for ourselves,” Oscar said. “We felt that we had the honor of representing the hundreds of thousands of young people, just like us, who have worked hard to follow their dreams of launching a STEM career.”

On the surface, it may seem that Oscar and Lydia don’t have much in common. One is an immigrant from Mexico who completed a tour of duty in Afghanistan; the other, an engineering student from Alaska. But in fact, they have much in common.  Their lives were changed by a passion to be innovative; to use their skills in STEM in a hands-on way to solve challenging problems – academically, professionally, and in their communities. And for both, FIRST has helped corral that passion toward pathways to prosperity.  

“This experience made it clear to us that after-school robotics programs should be available to all students, everywhere,” Lydia said. “And although there has been progress in a few states (Connecticut, Minnesota and Texas) that recognize robotics as an extracurricular varsity sport –  on par with football, baseball, and basketball – the movement needs more attention and more support, from across the country and beyond.” 

In high school, both Lydia and Oscar participated in extracurricular activities – including sports and orchestra. But it was their schools’ after-school robotics programs that instilled them with life-long creative problem solving and STEM skills that resulted in education and job opportunities that the other activities did not.

These outcomes are not unique to Lydia and Oscar. Of the eight million students who participate in high school athletics in the United States, less than 6 percent will ever compete at a collegiate level, and of that group, only a fraction will realize their goals of becoming professional athletes. Meanwhile, FIRST participants are two times as likely to major in science or engineering, and almost 90 percent of FIRST Alumni are currently a student or professional in a STEM field.

“Although inspired by the emphasis on STEM we saw in Washington, Oscar and I recognize that there is still a ways to go if we want all young people to have access to opportunities for STEM learning,” Lydia said. “It helped change our lives. We want to help pay it forward.” 

If you have an inspiring story or piece of wisdom that you’ve picked up through your experiences in the FIRST community, please reach out to us at and inquire about becoming a guest contributor for Inspire.

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