Alumna Tessa Szalkowski is our first spotlight for May! A graduate of Henry.W.Grady High School (2016) and currently a junior at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a chemistry major with a minor in marine science and currently works in a laboratory that studies air chemistry in the Galápagos Islands. Tessa says that 21CL gave her the confidence to pursue her dreams and give back to community. Read on about Tessa and don’t forget to fill out the alumni career update form and share about your career progress, connect with other alumni and let us know if you would like to be featured on 21CL alumni blog post.

How did participating in 21CL transform you and lead you to where you are now?

In my freshman year of high school, I joined 21CL’s school-based club at Grady, where I began a project to collect children’s books for the Kigali Public Library in Rwanda. 21st Century Leaders helped me expand from a small, local project to a state-wide fundraiser. They organized lectures for me to speak about the Kigali Book Project with students and teachers, developing my public speaking skills.  With 21st Century Leaders’ help, I rounded up over ten thousand books! In 2014, I was awarded their annual Georgia Youth Leadership Award. 21st Century Leaders gave me the confidence to pursue my dreams and dream big.

How did 21CL prepare you for your next steps? Going into college and taking on leadership roles, heading into a new era of professionalism, etc. What skills/tools/perspectives have helped you along the way?

21st Century Leaders developed my networking skills and taught me how to give back to my community. With 21CL, I participated in many volunteer events at my high school and spoke with adults in the Atlanta business community on a regular basis. 21CL contributed valuable life skills that I continue to use to this very day.

Which programs did you participate in, and when? What skills did you gain or improve through those programs?

In 2013, I attended their EarthCare, summer leadership institute. This institute taught me how to talk to professionals, give presentations to business executives, and collaborate with my peers.

What was a memorable or ‘aha’ moment in 21CL? (Particular program, meeting professional and diverse peers, speaking in public for the first time, etc.?)

During the EarthCare institute, my team won the Clean Air Campaign challenge. We were given the task to come up with the best school campaign to decrease air pollution. My teammates and I worked hard on the assignment, brainstormed and came up with with a great presentation. When I heard our names called as the winning team, I realized that putting in the time and effort to a noble cause truly pays off. I discovered my true passion for environmental science during this project. I now work as an air chemist in a research lab, so I never gave up on that dream.

Did 21CL assist you in developing a leadership style that makes you an effective leader? if so how? And have you recently learned something else about leadership? Please share!

21CL has taught me how to think on my feet and go with my gut instinct. To further promote my Kigali Book Project, 21CL asked me to collect books and make bookmarks with the students at their annual winter training, Goizueta Youth Leadership Summit. Upon arrival, I was asked to share a few words after the Minority Leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, Stacey Abrams. (Little did I know she would make a run at Georgia governor!) I was so nervous to address this room of bright students without a speech prepared, but after a gracious introduction, I took the stage and began to speak. Public speaking on the spot was something I would not have dared to do even a few years before. However, 21CL gives you the skills to face your fears with the utmost confidence. I have utilized these public speaking skills and ability to think on my feet as a leader in my academics and research.