We are revisiting with P.J. who we interviewed in 2014. You can find P.J.’s original interview here. Since 2014, P.J. has received his Master’s in Clinical Counseling and now mentors FRC Team 3538 the RoboJackets. Read more about P.J. and his goal to build a more positive mental health culture within FRC teams!
[responses from 7/3/2020]
Name: PJ Lewalski
CD Username: P.J.
Current Job: Counseling Intern at the Stonecrest Center
Alma Mater/Degree: Bachelor’s Degrees in English and
History from Wayne State University, Master’s in Clinical
Counseling from Wayne State University
Current Team(s): 3538 (2020-Present)
Former Team(s): 910 (07-10 Student, 11-17 Mentor)
What inspired you to do what you do professionally? Tell us a story.
I have always wanted to help people, and that has led me down a few different paths. I initially spent my undergrad thinking I wanted to be a high school teacher, even going so far as to get about 90 percent of a Master’s Degree in Education. Then I started student teaching as my last semester to get my degree, and I realized that it was not what I wanted to do with my life. So I left the program and spent a lot of time reflecting, and realized that in order to truly have the impact that I want to have on others the job that was calling to me was becoming a therapist focused on youth and adolescent counseling. So I entered a new Master’s program and over the years it only reaffirmed my choice. So what I always tell people is that I was on the right road when it came to choosing a job, I just took the wrong exit. I guess the moral is don’t be afraid to leave your path if it isn’t right for you just because you spent a lot of time on it, when it comes to your life you want to do something that truly makes you happy.
What is your day job (what projects/tasks do you do?), and how’d you get there?
I am currently a counseling intern at the Stonecrest Center, which is a mental health hospital in Detroit, Michigan. I am responsible for helping run group therapy sessions, but my main task is working in individual counseling sessions with some of the teenagers admitted to the hospital. The hospital has several floors and while I largely work with the adolescents and kids, I also spend time working with people with developmental disabilities, specifically individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
How did you get involved in FIRST and what led you to become a mentor/volunteer?
I joined Team 910, The Foley Freeze, my freshman year of high school because it seemed fun and I always liked helping my dad and grandparents fix and build things. I immediately fell in love, and now I can’t imagine my life without FIRST. My freshman year of college I was busy with school so I wasn’t spending a ton of time mentoring 910, and First in Michigan requires teams to provide two volunteers per event they attend so I thought I could help the team by volunteering. On a whim I signed up to referee, never expecting them to choose a 17 year old college freshman for the job, and I was surprised when they did. Since then I have refereed at 98 events in 9 years, including multiple world championships. So between mentoring and volunteering I’m generally at an event every weekend in competition season in some capacity.
What’s your/your team’s schedule like during robotics season?
Generally we meet Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 6-9 (ish, usually closer to 10 when all is said and done) and then on Saturday we’re in the shop from 8-8 but run that in two shifts so no kids are usually there more than 6 hours or so.
What is your favorite story to tell about robotics?
In 2018 at the Troy District event I was volunteering as a referee and when I showed up Friday morning to my great surprise Dr. Woodie Flowers was in the volunteer room. As he always was he was talking to everyone, signing things for people, and was just smiling and brightening the whole room with his presence. By chance we started talking and we got on the topic of mental health, and I discovered that mental health and changing the stigma surrounding those struggling with their mental health was a huge passion of Woodie’s. We talked and recommended several books to each other, and I mentioned that I had put in a proposal to lead a conference at the Championship event about promoting a positive mental health culture on an FRC team that was denied. He gave me a puzzled look and encouraged me to make sure I submitted again next year. Thinking nothing of it at the time I thanked him for the book recommendations and let him go on talking to other people (seeing as how we had accidentally spent about 15 minutes in intense conversation between just us). For the 2019 championship I submitted my proposal again and this time was accepted, so in April 2019 I presented to close to 200 people on why mental health in FRC is so important. I can’t help but think that Woodie had something to do with that, and I wish that I would have had the chance to thank him for it.
What is your favorite robot that you didn’t help build and why?
This is hard. As the years go by there are more and more robots I could add to this list. 469 in 2010 will always be the robot that I wish I would have built. 3707 in 2018 and 2019 will always hold a special place in my heart, as their Dirty Swerve was just so fun to watch and they’re examples of how good driving can make up for some…questionable…design choices.
Tell us about an intriguing mechanism or project from your team(s)?
My favorite “project” from 3538 is probably the entirety of our training structure. Our lead mentor Allison has created an amazing training program that leads to kids constantly improving their skills and never leaving us short handed, no matter who graduates there is always a next person to step into their shoes.
What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life recently? (Work, Robotics or Home)
I bought a small JBL Bluetooth speaker and it has just been great to have a portable speaker to use in my apartment or at my friends’ places that requires zero setup, just set it down and it plays music.
What do you listen to while you work?
I listen to a huge variety of music, switching from classic rock to contemporary rap and hip hop to video game soundtracks and Disney music. It really depends on my mood, but I’ll listen to anything once.
What’s the most valuable advice that you share with your students? (or what advice has helped you the most?)
Don’t cling to a mistake just because you spent a long time making it. Whether it is time to give up on that design concept you spent a week on or that relationship you’re in or that career path you’re on, never hold on to something for no reason other than time invested.
How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success?
When I decided to leave the teaching program I was in, I had a really rough time for a bit. I felt that I had failed in my career path. I even started seeing a counselor because I was having such a hard time processing and moving forward. This is what led me to realize that the counseling profession was my calling. If I wouldn’t have “failed” at my first attempt at a Master’s degree, I never would have found my dream profession.
What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?
I still love LEGOs, when my mom asks what I want for Christmas every year I still ask for LEGO sets as a grown man. I have way too many sets and they’re taking over my apartment.
Is there anything else you want people to know about you?
-I love FRC scouting and strategy, I spend far too much time analyzing and preparing for events and there is nothing I love more than alliance selection time.
-Mental health among teenagers is my passion, and I am always willing to talk about ways to build more of a positive mental health culture on FRC teams and in society as a whole. So if you ever see me at events I am usually more than happy to talk about it.
Who else should we interview for this series?
Clinton Bolinger (FRC 2337), Saikiran Ramanan (FRC 3476)