Paolo Reyes never imagined that at 17 he would be in the African desert. He had gone from watching electronics videos to bringing water to people in communities in Kenya, a path that began when he said “yes” to joining a robotics team.
Being in Africa that day, almost 15,000 kilometers from home with the sand under his feet, was the result of having designed an electric go-kart he used to teach engineering to young people with Down syndrome in his native Toluca.
Those young Mexicans were academically abandoned when they finished high school, but Paolo had other plans. He wanted to show that engineering could be accessible and could change their lives, just as it had changed his own life years before, despite not having many financial resources.
Joining a robotics team at age 15 led him to the challenge of creating that car, then to Kenya with the desert communities, later to go for a 100% scholarship at Tec de Monterrey, and then to help his team go to a world event, all while trying to fulfill his dream: inspiring others through engineering.
“Take the opportunity. It may seem quite trivial to say, ‘I want to participate here’ or ‘I want to join that robotics team,’ but you don’t know where your lives will end up in 2 or 3 years,” says Paolo, now a mentor on the team he started in.
How a robotics team changed his life
When Paolo Reyes was in high school, he spent hours in front of a screen watching YouTube videos.
I would type any word related to electronics or inventions into the search engine and smile as I selected the first video to watch that day.
“I think you’re going to be an engineer,” were the words he remembers hearing from his parents, aunts and uncles, teachers, and friends.
However, at that time Paolo did not quite understand what it was to be an engineer, and it hadn’t been that long since the days when he dreamed of being an astronaut or even a veterinarian.
Days, nights, and dozens of videos passed until the moment came when Paolo, at the age of 15, made a choice that would lead him to travel thousands of kilometers away and to the profession people had always associated him with.
“I loved that world. At home, I used to take cardboard boxes and make remote control cars with them. They had a very ugly cardboard chassis, but the idea was to understand what was in them,” he says.
Paolo mentions that they didn’t have the financial resources for him to study at a college, let alone think about studying at a private university, but that wasn’t going to stop him. He would find a way to pursue his dreams at all costs.
“When I was 15 years old, I went to high school at Tecmilenio in Toluca, where they had a FIRST robotics team. From then on, every project I’ve worked on has used what I learned there,” he says.
This team, called WinT, had been participating for years in the FIRST Robotics Competition, which brings together high school students from all over the world.
There, the young people are in charge of designing, building, and operating a robot that performs actions in an arena against other teams to score points in qualifying events and later compete in a world event in Houston, Texas.
“It may seem quite trivial to say, ‘I want to participate here’ or ‘I want to join that robotics tam,’ but you don’t know where your lives will end up in 2 or 3 years.”
Paolo remembers coming to the team with only the knowledge he had gained from YouTube. There was no one in his family who could have helped him with the topics they saw.
The young man recalls that he had to learn robotics as quickly as possible, but that would be only his first challenge.
Along with creating a robot, the teams must also carry out a community project, so Paolo, despite being a rookie, decided to participate in that as well.
Paolo took initiative wherever he could, trying to make the WinT team do something it had never done in its history: win.
“At one point, the team wasn’t very good. It had lost for many years, and then I took initiative. Before, there was no robot design. Everything was done on the spot.
“I talked to the coach, I designed a first robot in the 2020 season for another FIRST competition called FTC, and we won at the national level. Then, we applied that process to this competition (FRC),” he said.
The team’s community challenge was to build an electric go-kart using PVC pipes and to teach engineering to young people with Down syndrome at a care center in Toluca.
“I was new, and none of those with experience went for it. It scared me, but I said: ‘I’ll take it on. I’ll study what I have to, and it’ll work out.’
“We wanted to bring this go-kart to them so they could put it together with their own hands through a direct, practical approach (to engineering). That’s what FIRST does for us. In this way, they could discover that they could do more after they finish high school.”
“I was new, and none of those with experience went for it. It scared me, but I said: ‘I’ll take it on, I’ll study what I have to, and it’ll work out.”
Paolo’s work on the design of the WinT team’s robot would also bear other fruit. For the first time in its history, the team won national awards.
“We won everything. We won the Inspire Award, which was the most important. We were champions with our robot,” Paolo recalls laughing.
In addition, the team won the Imagine Engineering Award during the FIRST Regional Monterrey 2022, enabling them to go on to the world event in Houston.
The 15,000-kilometer journey
After his community work, a company called “Dow” became interested in Paolo. As a reward for his work with young people with Down syndrome, they gave him the opportunity to work on a community project in Kenya.
Bags packed, plane ticket in hand, and hours of travel were the beginning of 2 weeks in which Paolo, together with young people involved in engineering projects around the world, would work to improve the lives of the desert inhabitants of this African country.
Some of the actions carried out by the volunteers included creating domes to take advantage of solar energy and transporting water to a community where women walked kilometers every week to collect it from a river.
“From that experience, I learned to value the things we have, basic services like water or even the opportunities you have, and sometimes you think you don’t have many.
“You realize that you’re privileged and that you have to take advantage of opportunities, not only for yourself but also to help others,” he said.
The Tec de Monterrey scholarship that changed his life
Paolo returned to Mexico, where he had lived with limited financial opportunities until that point.
His trip to Kenya, Paolo recalls, had convinced him that there were ways to find opportunities where there seemed to be none.
His next step was to study engineering, and Paolo was determined to make it happen, no matter where he would end up pursuing his degree.
The WinT Robotics team would once again present an opportunity for the young man.
“I think you could apply for a Leaders of Tomorrow scholarship,” one of his teammates said to him, someone even younger than Paolo but who already knew that the scholarship offered 100% support to study at Tec de Monterrey.
At that point, Leaders of Tomorrow could be the ticket to engineering for Paolo, who did not hesitate to apply to be chosen from among the thousands of annual applicants to the program.
Months later and only 2 days before the results were announced, he was called to the Tec’s Toluca campus. He was told that he had to come with his mother.
“I thought that there were 2 days left until they announced it, and I was still being evaluated, but when I arrived, they gave me a piece of paper they told me was the interview date.
“When I read it, it said that I had won the scholarship. At that moment, my mom started crying, and then I did too,” recalls Paolo, who then went on to study Robotics Engineering with a 100% scholarship.
The student who became a mentor
It has been 3 years since Paolo joined the WinT team. The scene is the regional stage of FIRST Robotics Competition Monterrey in March 2022.
Sitting on the floor, the young man is holding the robot while the rest of the team drills holes in a metal structure to remove an extra kilogram of weight so that it can compete.
“Paolo, they’re looking for you for an interview,” they tell him over the sound of the drill on the robot.
As he leaves the arena where they are competing, Paolo lowers his mask and smiles. He has the opportunity to tell the story of how he came to mentor the team that opened doors for him and took him to Africa, then to a scholarship at the Tec, and then to the World Cup in the United States.
“I’m in charge of the design area, and I also get involved sometimes in drilling holes to remove an extra kilo from the robot,” Paolo says with a laugh.
Today, he is a design leader and junior mentor to the young people taking the place of his friends from a couple of years ago, with whom he will lead the robot to the glory offered by FIRST for those who win the competitions.
“We had our glory in high school, and now we’re looking to pass on our knowledge to new generations,” adds Paolo.
There’s no time to waste. He puts his safety glasses back on his face, stands behind the robot that has already lost a few grams, and sits down again, as he used to do in front of the computer he watched robotics videos on.
The drill makes a noise, hands hold on firmly to the robot, cheers of encouragement are heard from the stands, and the competition that gave him the opportunity to design and build his future returns to normal.
The day after his interview with CONECTA, Paolo’s team received a direct pass to the FIRST world event, the robotics tournament conceived as a sport to help get children and young people interested in science.
His destination is now Houston, where he will look to achieve international recognition for his team and for Mexico, bringing him closer to his childhood dreams.