It STEMs from perseverance

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photo by Skyler Glenn

Junior Ilani Seguinot evaluates an EV3 robot built by the Minimancer First Lego League Challenge Team. Seguinot’s interest in STEM was initially sparked by her participation in the Geneva Elementary School robotics program.

Coders are used to if/then statements: “if” a user clicks on the login button, “then” they will be redirected to the login page. But in the case of junior Ilani Seguinot, “if” you have a passion for mathematics and technology, “then” being nominated for county-wide STEM awards is possible. 

Every year, Seminole County selects one junior from each high school who excels in STEM fields to represent their school and interview for the Sunshine State Scholars Award, which Seguinot was nominated for in November. Of these, two will be sent to a two-day STEM program in Orlando, creating a network between scholars and Florida universities. 

“I was very honored and excited for this opportunity,” Seguinot said. “I didn’t expect it because there are so many accomplished students who are also interested in STEM.”

To receive this nomination, a student must be a junior enrolled in advanced STEM courses, have a weighted GPA of 3.9 or higher, have 25 or more hours of documented community service, score at least a 30 or 1300 on the ACT or SAT respectively, score a 3 or higher on an AP test, score 4s and 5s on FSAs and EOCs and show leadership in STEM. Based on these requirements, AP Computer Science Principles and Statistics teacher Dan Conybear felt Seguinot was the perfect candidate.

“Ilani has demonstrated all of the qualities outlined for this STEM award,” Conybear said. “I know that she is a terrific student, with the added benefit of being a really good person.”

Seguinot’s interest in STEM began in her elementary school years as she participated in challenging STEM activities. After being accepted into her school’s gifted program in fifth grade, she began programming EV3 Lego robots, taking a particular interest in coding. 

“I loved the creativity and problem-solving aspect of coding the robots to do tasks,” Seguinot said. 

Once Seguinot reached middle school, her passion for coding and computer science continued when she joined the Jackson Heights robotics team. In the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 seasons, Seguinot helped lead her team to victories in regional and international competitions. However, during her first season, her team was not chosen to advance to the regional tournament after months of tough coding and programming.

Seguinot’s robotics team, the Plac-Trackers, were recognized by the school board after being invited to the world competition in 2019. The competition was held in Houston, Texas. (photo by Erika Ramos)

“When they started announcing which teams would be advancing, we didn’t hear our team name,” Seguinot said. “We were very disheartened by the loss. I personally felt like I failed.” 

Days later, Seguinot’s team was informed that one of the teams selected for regionals could not attend the competition, and her team was able to compete in their place. Seguinot describes this moment as a “win for the underdog.”

“We all started yelling and celebrating, it was amazing,” Seguinot said.

The team went on to take second and later attended the national competition in Los Angeles. In 2019, her team placed first at the Central Florida Regional Tournament, again earning an invite to nationals: the First Lego League World Festival in Houston, Texas.

“It felt very rewarding to not only meet our previous expectations, but exceed them,” Seguinot said. “That had never happened in the history of Jackson Heights. I still can’t believe I got to be a part of it.” 

Seguinot was not able to continue robotics in high school due to schedule conflicts, but has found other ways to stay involved with coding. She took AP Computer Science Principles her sophomore year, and will enroll in AP Computer Science A her senior year. In the future, she plans to attend MIT and pursue a career as a software engineer at companies like Siemens, Lockheed Martin or NASA. 

“At MIT, I will be surrounded by people who are as passionate about computer science as me,” Seguinot said. “It will also push me to my limits, and I want to be challenged.” 

To help achieve her dream of attending a top university like MIT, Seguinot has perfected her test-taking skills. Without studying the test material, she earned a 31 on her first ACT and a 1460 on her latest PSAT, which will likely make her a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist next September. Seguinot claims that the best strategy is to go as quickly as possible and not overthink the answers.

“I haven’t always been good at taking tests, so I was very proud of myself when I received my scores,” Seguinot said. “I tend to do best when I am calm and give myself breaks between answering questions.”

Seguinot takes a photo before leaving home for her Sunshine State Scholars Award interview on Dec. 3. She was selected as an alternate for the award two days later. (photo by Erika Ramos)

Though Seguinot handles most of her schoolwork with ease, she also faces the occasional struggle. While completing a demo project for her final computer science exam, she discovered an error that she could not figure out how to solve. This proved to be daunting for days, leaving her discouraged. She eventually concluded that the error was caused by an incorrect number in her code that caused a chain reaction. 

“There were a lot of tears and wasted hours during that project. Computer science can be a frustrating subject,” Seguinot said.

From her first day of preschool, Seguinot’s parents have placed a strong emphasis on education. According to Seguinot, this is largely due to her family’s culture and history. Her mother, Erika Ramos, lived in Puerto Rico before moving to the United States at age 8. Because English was not her first language, Ramos initially struggled in school, but later became the valedictorian of her high school graduating class. Following in her footsteps, Seguinot and her siblings were selected for the College Board National Hispanic Recognition Program in August.

“I will be a first-generation college graduate, which is really special to me,” Seguinot said. “I hope to continue making myself and my family proud.”

Another important part of Seguinot’s family life is her relationship with her siblings. As triplets, Seguinot and her brother and sister support and help each other throughout their academic and social lives. Though they tend to be competitive and are often compared to one another, their bond has helped her greatly, she says.

“I get to share all my life experiences with [my siblings],” Seguinot said. “Of course, there are always squabbles and disagreements, but we like each other most of the time.”

Beyond STEM, Seguinot enjoys participating in the marching band and Wind Ensemble every year, playing the euphonium. Currently enrolled in AP Music Theory, she loves finding rigor in even the most fun places of her life. In 2019, Seguinot participated in the Seminole County All-County honor band, and has received the highest rating at the Florida Bandmasters’ Association Solo and Ensemble festival five times. 

“Band has an aspect of creativity, just like coding,” Seguinot said. “It allows me to have artistic freedom. I can experiment with different dynamics and phrasing.”

As of Dec. 5, Seguinot was selected as an alternate for the Sunshine State Scholars Award, meaning she will attend the Orlando convention if one of the selected students is not able to attend. Both Conybear and Ramos are pleased with Seguinot’s success, and feel that she has a bright future and will leave a lasting impact on the field of computer science.

“Watching Ilani excel through her education has been so rewarding,” Ramos said. “She works so hard and gives it her all with everything that she does.”

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