In 2015, Cynthia Erenas became one of the .002 percent of the population who landed on Dean Kamen’s prestigious dean’s list. Out of about 32,000 students, Cynthia won an award For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology’s Robotics Competition. Ten years before that, Cynthia’s family immigrated to the United States from Culiacan, Mexico – a decision an 8-year-old Cynthia protested. “I didn’t know English, I didn’t know anybody,” Erenas said on an episode of Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers. “I used to cry overnight. I used to tell my mom I didn’t want to be here. This is not where I come from.”
Adjusting to a new life in the U.S. didn’t come easy, and Cynthia’s third grade teacher made her spend time in a class among kindergarteners so that she could learn the basics of English. This could have scarred and demoralized her, but for the homesick Cynthia, the experience marked a turning point. “They helped me out a lot,” she said. “They really encouraged me and they made it seem like it was possible, and it was.”
Fast forward a few years later to her freshmen year of high school, and Cynthia had another life-changing moment. This time it came in the form of Will.i.am’s College Track. The Black Eyed Pea member started the non-profit organization to help Boyle Heights students go to college, and he also brought the first robotics competition to the Los Angeles neighborhood. For Cynthia, Will.i.am’s investment in his community means she found her passion. As soon as her team got a robot to move, she became hooked and motivated.
“I just feel like once I saw it changed my life, I kinda feel like we can start changing people’s lives little by little,” she said. So she did. She wrote letters to high schools in Boyle Heights to start robotics programs there. Some didn’t write back and some straight up passed, but she met her goal: She started 10 robotics programs in her community.
Check out NOVA’s video profile of her below, and try not to tear up when she tells Will.i.am that he’s her hero: