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Alumni Spotlight: Brandon Ona

Brandon Ona, a 21CL alumnus and Junior Board of Directors member was the keynote speaker at our 10th Charity Golf Outing on Tuesday, October 18th, 2022. He is a graduate of Mill Creek High School (2012) and of The George Washington University (2016). Since graduating high school, he has pursued a career in public service working with government entities to help everyday people live more fulfilling lives. He currently serves as Director of Business Services, Office of Workforce Development at Technical College Services of Georgia. Brandon credits 21CL for helping him learn to lead with curiosity, leveraging diversity and maintaining a service-oriented attitude at an early age. His leadership style is centered on learning people’s stories and figuring out how he can be of service to them, or work with them to be of service to others! Brandon volunteers regularly in most of our programs and has volunteered and helped to fundraise at each of our golf fundraisers for the last five years. Following are excerpts from his speech at this year’s Charity Golf Outing at The River Club in Suwanee, GA.

What drives you to give back to 21st Century Leaders as a Junior Board member and at special events like the golf event?

I have been coming to 21st Century Leaders’ Leaderboard golf outing for five years now, and when I think about what really brings me back every year, I think it’s probably the same for all of you who support this organization. While highlights, it’s not necessarily the bacon, or the beautiful golf course, or getting to be away from the office for a day— okay I’ll be honest it’s all those things. But, most importantly it’s about the incredible mission that 21st Century Leaders has, and how it changes the lives of young people every year. I know that very well because of how it changed the course of my life all those years ago and continues to do so today.

I grew up in Gwinnett County, Georgia, but what most people don’t know is how my family and I got there. When I was a kid, we moved from Florida because my father lost his job, and with that, we lost just about everything and had to start over. When I asked my parents why we had to leave, they told me the same thing my father was told when he was my age and moved to this country from the Philippines—Opportunity. For much of my childhood, I was confused about what exactly opportunity meant because everything always felt so uncertain. I spent many nights watching my parents staring off at dinner wondering how bills will be paid and hoping the electricity or God forbid the cable won’t be shut off before their sons wake up in the morning.  Despite all of that, they had my brother and I absolutely convinced that we could do anything because here there was opportunity. And they were right. That opportunity came in many forms. I’m very grateful for that. One of the best forms was in 21st Century Leaders. When, as a high schooler, my parents dropped me off at Georgia Tech’s campus and I learned how to not only lead change in my life, but most importantly in other people’s lives. I can honestly say that from the moment I stepped onto that campus, and was welcomed by the incredible 21CL staff, my world opened! See that’s the thing that never changes about 21CL — the feeling of opportunity that fills the room when young people of different backgrounds come together to share what they all have in common — A hope for something better for those around them.

Give us an update on what you’re doing now and how you got there?

It’s true watching my father lose his job and moving to Georgia and learning the very foreign language of a southern accent was a bit tough, but kind of like the young people we are supporting today, that kid was transformed into something greater.

Today, I oversee the State of Georgia’s workforce development programs, nearly $50M in investments to make sure everyone in this state, especially those that lost their job, have access to opportunity though education and job training. I wake up every day grateful to this state and organization, because I get to work to fulfill the promise that brought my family here in the first place: that no matter where you came from or who you are, there is a pathway to success through opportunity and hard work.

And, in so many ways this ties back to all of the people who have given back to 21st  Century Leaders and the support they have given over the years.

What has it been like volunteering and interacting with the students now as a young professional and alumni?

I’m going to be honest, these past couple of years interviewing and talking with the young leaders in 21CL programs have been particularly tough. I see the students that were just like me when I was in high school, carrying an immense burden of growing up in uncertain times. In many ways, it’s almost the same feeling I had when I was their age, navigating an environment I never knew existed. There’s a silver lining though. I also get to see them a couple of months later as they become 21CL alumni, transformed into something so much greater. Their world changed. They see a new version of themselves, and a new version of each other! But in this case, they aren’t waiting to take on the challenges of life. They are already doing remarkable things, from building small businesses, to being election poll workers, health advocates, and quite literally rebuilding the communities around them in more ways than imaginable. My favorite thing every month is to read the alumni blog spotlights that Anne posts on the 21CL website. You can view more here.

What’s your message to those reading this?

I’d like you to go to someone in your family, friends, or coworkers and tell them that the future is in good hands, better hands. You’re going to pause and wait for them to ask you why. Well maybe they won’t, but you’ll still tell them because I told you to. You’ll tell them the future is in good hands because of 21st Century Leaders.

You’ll tell them about the young people that do remarkable things, and how their success will lead to a better future for all of us. What we know to be true is that in a matter of time, 21CL alumni will be leading your companies, protecting you and your family’s health, telling your stories, innovating the technology we use, and protecting the world around us.

On behalf of 21st Century Junior Board of Directors, and the 21CL alumni, thank you for your support.