By Cody Hooks of The Taos News
For almost three years, Damille Devenyi has headed up a local group of teens who discover the most exciting science and scientists New Mexico has to offer. Now, on the cusp of a move to another county, the Taos Academy senior is set to hand off the reins of leadership before tackling the challenge of college.
Café Scientifique, Devenyi explained, “gives local teens access to science and technology” by brining top-notch scientists to Taos to talk with students about their careers and life’s work. The cafés are hosted in partnership with the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which sponsors cafés in five communities in Northern New Mexico.
And each monthly café is entirely planned by local teen leaders, like Devenyi.
“Each café is really special,” Devenyi said, though each is also as unique as the last. The first meetup of the year had students learning about cyber hacking and security, while the biggest event in Taos, with over 50 students, was a talk by Los Alamos scientist Tawanda Zidenga about achieving sustainable agriculture alongside the development of genetically modified plants.
“These talks underline how [scientists] came to be in the roles they are,” said Meghan McFail, the Taos liaison for Café Scientifique. “Just like every other teen in Taos, it wasn’t a straight path to where they are now.”
And like many of the scientists who’ve come through Taos, Devenyi’s life path has been anything but linear.
Devenyi was adopted in Kazakhstan as a young child, and he’s since lived in Argentina and South Africa. In each place, he said, his mom always told him how important it is to be part of your community. In South America, he took up soccer to make friends. And in South Africa, the legacy of apartheid played into what it meant to be the new kid on the block. Living abroad, he said, “You witness things you just can’t learn in school,” like poverty that plagues communities from the Global South to North-Central New Mexico. “It’s just not right to see humans on the streets like that,” he said.
But living in Taos — which he said can tend to “be a pit stop for people’s lives” — put him face to face “with an America that’s rural.”
Perhaps it was his breadth of experiences that made it clear to McFail that he was a natural leader with nuanced skills. “From the onset of the program 2 1/2 years ago, when he first stepped into the role of vice president, it was very obvious his strengths are being affable, adaptable. And he has the rather unique ability to step back and see the big picture,” she said.
“My job, and really my privilege, was to give him the space to hone those skills,” McFail said. “He is really keen to recognize any breakdown, especially in communication. And he’s really commendable in that he was never satisfied with the program,” she said.
“You have to set a goal,” Devenyi said. “And every goal needs a deadline to get done. It takes a different perspective each time — you can never be stagnant,” he said.
“It’s sad to leave the cafés,” he said.
Some cafés brought out dozens of students. Others sparked ideas for careers and college. And still others were — more than anything — just fun, such as the small car show on the Plaza with the newest electric and solar-powered cars on the market, including the latest Tesla.
But Devenyi will step down from his role as president of Café Scientifique when his family moves to Morocco in 2016. Until the move — and even after — Devenyi will be mentoring the incoming president, Taos Academy sophomore Justis Daniels, and the dozen other students on the leadership board.
As an online learner, he’ll be able to obtain his high school diploma from Morocco. There, he plans to begin learning Arabic and gearing up for a college major in international relations. He wants to come back to Taos for graduation and the United States for college, having applied to Stanford, Pomona College and University of California schools.
Devenyi has his sights trained on an eventual career in peacekeeping and international development. And with the world abuzz with civil wars, hunger, poverty and the massive movement of climate refugees like those from Syria, his future is one that will demand as much of a deep understanding of science and politics as it will the responsibility of leadership.