Posted on Jul 31, 2019
Akiyl El (he/him) is a mechanical engineering student at NYU. Half Dominican and half Colombian, Akiyl was born and raised in NYC and says that getting into the university was a dream. Akiyl credits FIRST Robotics with giving him an interest and head start in his field. He has hopes of continuing in robotics and/or going into biomedical engineering after graduation. Akiyl is a member of SHPE and the president of his oSTEM chapter. He says that he deeply values community and that being a part of organizations like this have helped him to gain a confidence in being openly himself that he didn’t have prior to college. Finding a family in oSTEM, Akiyl says that he is able to be visibly queer for individuals who might not feel safe being openly out.
You can read excerpts of our interview with Akiyl below:
Q: What accomplishments are you most proud of?
A: I am most proud of getting into NYU and pursuing my dream of engineering. Getting into such a prestigious university was not easy, but now that I am here, I am more than ecstatic to learn from the some of the best!
Q: How did you know you were interested in robotics?
A: I would always watch the Science Channel after school when I was younger. I loved watching MythBusters where they would debunk or prove myths with science and engineering and sometimes they created robots to do this which amazed me. Because of this, I realized I was interested in robotics and wanted to do something similar myself. Being on a FIRST Robotics team (FRC) in High School definitely boosted my interest and knowledge in the field as well.
Q: Can you expand on your robotics projects?
A: I recently worked on a project at NYU where I, along with two other Mechanical Engineering students, constructed a ball that moved itself with the help of dielectric elastomer actuators (DEA). We were trying to emulate the Star Wars BB-8 robot, where a sphere moves without any external forces. Basically, each half of the sphere had a DEA attached to the middle. Depending on the current that ran through them, they would constrict shifting the center of mass of the sphere to one side causing the ball to roll wherever the center of mass was.  
Q: Where all have you found community at NYU?
A: Apart from my involvement of oSTEM, I am a member of the Society of Professional Hispanic Engineers (SHPE). This is a club to empower hispanic and other minorities in the STEM field. I helped create programming to develop the social and professional aspects of our members.
Q: How long have you been involved in oSTEM and SHPE?
A: I've been involved in oSTEM since the beginning of my Sophomore year. I didn't know it existed before, or else I would've joined sooner. I was a part of SHPE the beginning of my first-year. The two clubs both care about supporting minorities in the STEM and engineering field, which means everyone is really open and understanding and we have a safe and fun environment.
Q: Can you talk more about programming that you helped develop?
A: For SHPE, I created our Annual SHPE Awareness Night, where once a year we have a discussion with our members about an important issue/topic. The first year was about immigration policies and how it affects the US and other countries. The second year was on mental health and ways to support yourself and your friends in college.
For oSTEM, I co-hosted an event with our NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers) chapter to do a Disco Night right before finals and help people to have fun and relax. Towards the end of the academic year, I along with another oSTEM board member created our first ever Eloqueer Fashion Show which stands for Eloquent Queer Fashion. The point of this event was to showcase different fashion styles chosen by queer people. We had a section for business wear, street style, drag, and more.
Q: Are there challenges that you face when navigating your identities as a queer person in STEM?
A: I feel the biggest challenge I've had to face was being comfortable with my own sexuality around Cishet  people, specifically the men. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable being myself because the environment around me is so straight and traditional that I tend to stick out, which can make me a bit embarrassed.
Q: Is there anything that has helped you to face these obstacles?
A: oSTEM at NYU has definitely helped me overcome this obstacle. The board pushes me to be myself every single day by showing me how amazing their own personalities are. Our members also inspire me because I want to create an environment for Queer and Trans people to be themselves and enjoy what we all love, which is STEM!
Q: How are you becoming comfortable in your own skin?
A: I found being surrounded by other people who share similar backgrounds with me helps me feel more comfortable with myself and being myself. Definitely finding a support group is helpful, people that understand you and where you are coming from. 
Q: Who most inspired you to believe in yourself as a queer individual in STEM?
A: Eric Kwok, our former Secretary and now Alum, has inspired me to be my true self regardless of what others think of you. Seeing his confidence and his bright personality has encouraged me to be myself. Sometimes I hide certain things about myself or don't show my full personality. When I see him being himself, though, I let my guard down and realize there's no reason for me to be hiding myself. Now, I try to be open about my sexuality, especially because I am the president of our oSTEM. I know it's important for people who are not ready to come out themselves to see people around campus who are out. I don't monitor what I say in front of people as much so they know I am queer and I am open about oSTEM and our mission statement on campus.
Q: What is your advice for someone struggling with their LGBTQ and STEM identities?
A: I think it's important to find a community that can help you whenever you feel down or as if there is something you can't overcome alone. Through community, you have help to overcome whatever you need to.
Without my oSTEM family, I would not feel as confident with my sexuality as I am now. I know that if someone doesn't accept me, my oSTEM family will be there for me just like I will be there for them. Overall, being a part of a community empowers you to be yourself. This gives you the confidence to put 100% of yourself in anything and everything you do. 
I value the community 100% Everyone in oSTEM (both NYU and all the other Chapters) just inspires me so much. They're all so creative and smart and QUEER! It's just great to see that you can excel in the STEM field and still be queer.