Interview by KELLY PRICE, Durant High; PHOTO BY EMMY BOYD, Wharton High
Roberto Villalba, Gaither High
College: Likely Cornell • Accepted by: USF, Drexel, Philadelphia, Northeastern, and Cornell. • Object of inspiration: A microcontroller, “Because you can just about make anything from it.”
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
About two years ago, I got into my engineering class and they showed me what microcontrollers were. And they just really got my interest because you can just about make anything from it. I’m specifically interested in the field of robotics. I’ve always had a feeling I could do something big here.
What kind of robots do you want to develop?
Autonomous, something that will function by itself, When you send it out to do whatever you’ve taught it to do, you have to hope that you’ve programmed everything right so that when it encounters some situation, it knows how to react. So in some ways, (it is) like teaching a kid that doesn’t know anything, and then just sending it out and seeing if what you’ve taught is correct.
What are you most proud of?
Well this scholarship is definitely one of them. Personally proud? I would say, again, the robotics thing. I did a project for it that I turned into the science fair and I got around eight or nine awards for it. It was a light-seeking device pretty much, it just followed the strongest source of life. After that, I actually spent about a year working on the second project that is not very close to being finished. This new one is supposed to be a firefighting robot, where I can put it out in a room and it will go and seek the fires in the room.
What teacher has most impacted your life?
I would probably say Mrs. Caro because she originally didn’t want to be a teacher; as a matter of fact, when she got out of high school and college, she wanted to get away from anything having to do with school. She was my math teacher for my junior year. The amount of dedication she puts into her students has been pretty cool. Whenever I would have a good test, she would encourage me to go on. She was the one who encouraged me to get into Mu Alpha Theta, which is the math team. And just like that, I actually got my community service hours from her because I’ve been tutoring in her class every morning. Not to sound corny or anything, but you get a really good feeling when someone walks in and they don’t really understand something, and you help them and show them the way you think about it, and they just go, “Oh, wow that makes so much sense!”
What made you strive fervently to succeed?
I would definitely say the place where I was born, Cuba. Sometimes I hear the stories and it sounds so outlandish that some part of you doesn’t really think it’s real. The fact that when you’re there, no matter how much you struggle, you’re really not going to get anywhere. You could be the brightest person there, yet you would get paid the same as everybody else. And anything you do accomplish gets taken by the government. I had an aunt who wrote like five volumes of college-level physics and what she got for it from the government was I think $20 and a radio. Immediately after she published that, the books were sent to Russia back in the time of the Soviet Union.
How does your mom inspire you?
My mom has gone through all this stuff to get me here. She doesn’t even understand English, so for her, it’s pretty hard. She’s always been paid really low for whatever job she does. I’ve always been aware what situation we were in. That’s made me learn to appreciate the opportunities I’ve been given and just the simple fact that (I was) able to go to school. And in (high) school, if you do good enough, you don’t have to worry about paying for your education. And then if you do good in college, so many doors open up for you. She’s always told me, “Do good in school, do good in school” — that’s always been her main thing. I know sometimes we’ve been a little bit tight on money, so I told her, “Mom, you know I’m pretty old now, I can get a job and help out.” And I remember word for word, she told me, “I’m not busting my a-- so that you fall into the same thing that I’m doing.”
How do you manage to live a normal life?
I put (a list) on my phone so I don’t have to scratch it out on a piece of paper. But when I open my phone, I’m just like “Ooh, new text!” And by the time I finish texting, I forget to check my list. Some days I actually put a black piece of tape on my hand and everybody’s like, “Why do you have that?” And I’m like “Oh! I need to turn in my application for blah blah blah!” But pretty much it’s rough, I’m not going to lie. I don’t really know how to answer “How do I find time?” Look under the couch for it or something, I guess. (Laughs.)
What hobbies do you enjoy?
My junior year a big part of my life was pole vaulting. Ever since I started, the coach was always like, “Oh you’re going to do great, you’re going to be great,” and somehow it got into my head, and I did do pretty good. My first year I actually vaulted higher than the school record, it was just at practice. I had so much fun doing it. But I messed up my wrists and spent six months not really being able to do any sort of exercise and nine months of still not doing much. That took a pretty big toll.
What’s your favorite time from high school?
(Track) was a good memory, and the other good memory was the science fair because originally, I went there thinking I wasn’t really going to win anything, because it was a science fair, yet I hadn’t really done any “scientific” process whatsoever; I just built it. I told (my mom) the awards were on Friday and she said she wanted to go. I was like “Oh, I’m not going. I’m not really going to get anything.” She was like, “No, I still want to go.” And I was the first one to be called, too. I didn’t know if I should get up, hug my mom, or what, and they were like “Please hurry up, Roberto,” so I was like “I’ll hug you later!”
Who is a real-life superhero to you?
Mr. Olsen, my World History teacher. First of all, he’s got white hair. I think that is pretty cool. And he’s this encyclopedia with legs you could say. Just the knowledge that he has is impressive in itself. He’s actually the person that introduced me to the Tao Te Ching, got me thinking that way a lot.
How would you save the world?
Teach everybody about honor. Because with honor come the right decisions.