Johnstone is a sophomore at Brandeis University. A native of New York City, he attended Baruch College Campus High School where he stumbled upon the opportunity to join a student group that won the prestigious Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams grant - only up to 15 teams nationwide are selected every year. Johnstone and InvenTeams’ impressive creation was invited by President Obama to the White House Science Fair. This is the story of how Johnstone went from the Flatiron District in Manhattan to Cambridge, Massachusetts to Washington D.C.
In my senior year of high school, I made one of the best unintentional decisions of my life. My friends persuaded me to join a club, and this club ended up making a vacuum that would attach to a train for cleaning subway tracks. This vacuum ended up in the Oval Office where President Obama got to use our machine at the White House Science Fair.
Compared to the other organizations at the White House Science Fair, we did not have shop classrooms. We did not have fancy rigs, or fancy technology, or fancy anything. We stuffed everything in the back of a Spanish classroom, worked there after school, and depended on a wooden closet to hold all the tools to our creation. But despite that disparity between us and the other groups in D.C., we looked past our disadvantages and only set our sights on finishing and polishing our machine. We were able to represent our high school and make a national reputation for ourselves as our vacuum stood televised on national TV.
My mother grew up during the Cultural Revolution, and spent her childhood toiling at the farms by day and being indoctrinated with Maoism by night. She moved with her younger brother and father to São Paulo, Brazil in the '80s, and left for America in the early '90s to join her mother and younger sister. She was uprooted and separated from her family.
My parents lived in derelict conditions in a broken down apartment and a superintendent who didn't care. Above all, they experienced the fundamental loneliness and unfamiliarity of being an immigrant in an unfamiliar country.
My father became ill when I was in high school. His speech was slurred, his movement slugged, and his reclusiveness worsened. We didn’t know what he was sick with, because he never went to see a doctor or a hospital. I would come home every day after InvenTeam to see my dad stagger to get food, to go to the bathroom, to fall occasionally - with my heart falling along with him. The ability to give life to a robot in InvenTeam but to see life taken away from someone I loved was a contrast that killed me slowly.
My dad died the first day I moved into college. I remember leaving him the morning before, and he was bedridden and on the floor. His once strong voice became a whisper, a shell of its former fortitude. I couldn't understand his last words, but my last words to him I made clear: I love you dad. Thank you for everything you've done to make my life. The next day, the morning of move-in day, my aunt called. My dad had died that morning. My mom, bless her strength, shed few tears but I knew she was crying inside. To lose her husband, and now her son to college, was alienating. My parents’ sacrifices instilled in me a desire to give back to the community. If I can go to the White House with all these hardships going on behind closed doors, then so can any Asian immigrant.
QARI gives students mentorships and volunteering opportunities to teach them the merit in learning from role models and contributing to the community. I volunteered at last month’s August Moon Festival. I saw that it gave the older generation the familiarity of our culture, and taught the younger generation who we are and what it means to be Asian American.
QARI allows Asian youth to strive for success, so that they could one day be the ones who invent works that the President can applaud in the future.”