Spring 2020 Scholarship Winner: Kelly Rojas

Spring 2020 Scholarship Winner: Kelly Rojas

In 2009, when I was twelve years old, my parents and I fled Venezuela as political refugees. We experienced financial hardship, leading to my parents’ divorce. My mother and I stayed in the U.S., and our American Dream faded, as we faced homelessness. At school, I faced sexual harassment, homophobia, and xenophobia. Eventually, I battled Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Though challenges overwhelmed me, they also instilled determination in me. I learned English and thrived academically. Additionally, community involvement through Best Buddies allowed me to make a positive impact at school. This organization fosters friendships among individuals with and without disabilities. Through friendships, I learned about the medical and financial challenges of individuals with disabilities and grew passionate about Rehabilitation Engineering. As a result, I developed a better sense of self. Community involvement helped me to figure out different ways to reinvent myself while helping my community after experiencing unnecessary chaos as a child.

After realizing the importance of community involvement in my life during high school, I joined my university’s chapter of Mind&Melody, Inc. as a Volunteer Musician. This organization creates music programs for individuals with and without neurological impairments like dementia. I led educational sessions on music theory concepts such as tempo and melody. These activities motivate participants to socialize and stimulate motor function by dancing and clapping. Additionally, they follow along songs with simple instruments such as maracas. Constant use of simple instruments allows them to improve dexterity.My impact encouraged me to continue my involvement. As 2016 Community Service Coordinator, I created opportunities for the organization, including fundraising and partnering with a Community Farmer’s Market. This position enhanced my communication and time management skills. Through the 2017 treasurer position, I monitored the organization’s funding and distributed it to specific aspects of the organization. These included ordering shirts and food for different events and creating flyers. My input was invaluable to accomplishing Mind&Melody’s goals. Eventually, I served as the 2018-2019 president. I oversaw activities, planned and enforced semester goals, and provided a platform to students so they also bring passion and talent to music sessions. My involvement in this organization further motivated me to continue my pursuit of assisting those with disabilities.

During 2017 and 2018, I performed rehabilitation engineering research through the McNair Fellowship Program. My first project investigated potential relationships between MRI-based measures of spinal cord and leg muscle physiology in fourteen individuals with spinal cord injury. Such relationships -or lack thereof -may hold prognostic value for determining their motor function recovery. My second research project examined muscle forces in transfemoral amputees through computer simulation. I helped develop a simulation framework to examine cycling differences between healthy and amputee subjects, which could lead to patient-specific rehabilitation programs.

Through the 2019 United Nations Millennium Fellowship, I started another project. This semester-long program helps to promote the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals through different student projects. My project linked to Sustainable Development Goal Number 3, which helps to promote well-being. By utilizing low-impedance microelectrode arrays coupled with RF interfaces, continuous monitoring with ECG and EEG is possible without extensive electronic integration. My project focuses on developing high-capacitance porous platinum electrode arrays on flexible substrates and demonstrating their superior neural recording performance. Educational experiences are motivation to give back while pursuing a degree I had not expected to attain when I was younger.

From 2016 until 2018, I was a STEM Tutor at my university’s Student Support Services Program (SSSP.) SSSP focuses on providing educational resources to low-income, first-generation students like myself. A highlight of my tutoring sessions was assisting a student with a learning disability succeed in her mathematics course. Her main obstacle was time management. As weeks passed by, however, she improved the outlook about her ability to understand content that at first may seem intimidating by enhancing time management skills. I was also an SSSP Peer Mentor, helping to provide a support network to first-year SSSP students. Majoring in Biomedical Engineering was not as daunting as being a first-generation, low-income student. Finding student resources such as SSSP, however, assisted with my educational success. SSSP advisers helped motivate me to stay on top of my courses. SSSP also provided tutoring services, my first job, and introduced me to the McNair Fellowship Program.Through AmeriCorps Excellence in STEM Program, I was a Mathematics tutor during 2019 for students with learning disabilities. A highlight of the program was a student who struggled with mathematical concepts. Nevertheless, as weeks passed by, he took better class notes, completed most homework on his own before attending tutoring sessions, and eventually obtained an A in his course. He learned to believe in his ability to succeed through enhanced organizational skills. His persistence made me grateful for being part of his educational journey.

At my university, I also joined the LGBT Mentoring Program, which provides LGBT students and allies networking and community service opportunities. As I faced hardships as a political refugee and came to terms with my sexual orientation, I lacked a support system at school. The LGBT Mentoring Program has been an excellent resource throughout my undergraduate years, allowing me to continue believing in my abilities to help humanity.

After graduation, I will attend professional school and eventually establish physical rehabilitation centers for children. Education will provide me with more opportunities to develop skills that can make a stronger impact on the world. Life is indeed full of suffering, which can transform into seemingly endless distractions. I have used suffering, nevertheless, to reinvent myself through purpose. Reinventing myself strongly emphasizes the ownership of my choices, the thoughtful use of free will. I encourage myself to question my surroundings as much as possible. People are not always victims. I do not consider myself a victim. Individuals who have gone through tough challenges in life can be those who thrive consistently. They build solid castles with obstacles found throughout their journeys and avoid blaming others. Nobody comes to this life with instructions on how to live to optimum capacity. We must figure it out ourselves, wherever we are.

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