It’s a Sunday afternoon and the multipurpose room at the Peter Kirk Community Center in Kirkland is slowly filling up.
As people take their seats, they remove the programs on the chairs, which feature a black and white photo of a smiling bearded man in glasses. The man himself, Fredi Lajvardi, soon takes the stage and shares the story of how a group of his students at Carl T. Hayden Community High School in Phoenix, Arizona, entered and won an underwater robot competition with the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center in 2004.
While there was a high school category, Lajvardi’s students entered into the college category.
The thinking behind this, he said, was that we learn the most when we fail. And having no experience with creating an underwater robot, his students — who were from the middle of the desert — were going to fail miserably and use the experience to address their weaknesses.
“We were going to fail on purpose to learn,” Lajvardi said.
Except they didn’t fail. They beat out the competition — including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And they did this when they had so many odds stacked against them. They were competing against much older students who were studying specific fields that gave them the knowledge to help build that underwater robot. Other teams also received grants as much as in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Lajvardi’s students were from a Title 1 school — meaning at least 40 percent of the students were from low-income families (in this case, Lajvardi said it was closer to 90 percent). English was a second language for many of the students at the predominantly Hispanic school and anywhere between 40 and 60 percent of students were undocumented. Three out of the four main students in the MATE competition were undocumented.
But somehow, these high schoolers prevailed.
Their story is told in the book, “Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream,” by Joshua Davis.
“I was really inspired,” said Marknisha Hervol about what the young men achieved despite how much they struggled.
The eighth-grader from Environmental and Adventure School in Kirkland read the book prior to Lajvardi’s Oct. 21 appearance, which was part of a series events through Kirkland Reads, Creating Conversations, a citywide reading program focused on connecting the community. The idea is for everyone in Kirkland to read one book, and to have deep, inclusive discussions about its themes.
Marknisha told me that after reading the story and listening to Lajvardi speak, she has become more interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). She said she could also relate to feeling like an outsider — which if you read the book, you’ll find was how the four teens felt in high school. Like these four boys, Marknisha said she doesn’t always feel like she has a place to belong,
Which is something many of us can relate to at one point or another in our lives.
For Kirkland resident Debbie Lacy, “Spare Parts” was a tremendous story that shined a spotlight on the humans behind those headlines we see about undocumented immigrants.
“These are people with real lives, real dreams, real struggles, real talents,” she said.
Like Marknisha, Lacy said the teens’ story was inspiring and could be used to motivate people to do what they want with what they have.
During his presentation, Lajvardi shared how their local community and various businesses supported his students. In the question-and-answer session that followed, one of the themes woven throughout the questions was, how could our local community help young people who are facing various obstacles achieve their dreams?
Lacy appreciated that those types of questions were asked because she said there are still achievement gaps among black and Latino students, compared to their peers.
This message that anyone can achieve anything, no matter their background, was something Lajvardi wanted to get across to people.
“You’re the only one that can decide whether or not you’re going to be successful,” he said, adding that whatever the obstacles you may be facing, it’s up to you as to whether you let it stop you from going after your dream.
He said it’s a matter of changing someone’s mindset. Lajvardi said as his students became more involved in STEM and participating in — and winning — these various competitions, they started receiving attention for something positive.
“They felt important,” he said.
And while it may seem small, having someone believe in you — especially when you’re younger — can make all the difference when it comes to whether you believe in yourself. And while Lajvardi said we as individuals are the only ones who ultimately control what we achieve, we don’t always know this. Sometimes, it takes someone else to tell us that we can do it in order for us to realize that yes, we can do it.
Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact editor Samantha Pak at email@example.com.