Teens gain leadership skills in summer internship

Photo: David McGregor . United Way interns Alexander Lopez, left, and Stacia Burke are seen working for the United Way in Atlanta through student leadership internships.

Photo: David McGregor . United Way interns Alexander Lopez, left, and Stacia Burke are seen working for the United Way in Atlanta through student leadership internships.

ATLANTA -- Gwinnett County residents Stacia Burke and Alexander Lopez recently completed the best summer job they say they ever had.

The two were among five civic-minded teens from metro Atlanta -- and 230 from throughout the nation -- chosen for a paid, eight-week summer internship at a nonprofit organization.

The students, selected as 2011 Bank of America Student Leaders, have been gaining hands-on experience and learning leadership skills while providing support to nonprofits in critical need of resources. The local team has been working for the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta, primarily working on a project that benefits Sheltering Arms.

"The unemployment rate is so high, and I think the teen unemployment rate for Georgia is the highest in the country," said Lopez, an 18-year-old Peachtree Ridge High School graduate. "Without this opportunity, I'd be struggling to find a regular job ... and nonprofit work is something I'm passionate about. I've always had an interest in volunteering and helping others."

Lopez's love of volunteerism began at an early age. The first service project he can remember participating in was for his school's environmental club when he was in second grade.

"I thought I was Superman, going around with my wagon and collecting cans," Lopez said.

Lopez's extensive resume is indicative of why he was selected for the highly competitive program. Bound for Dartmouth College, Lopez has spent the past four years teaching English to adults learning the language, something he plans to continue doing when he's in New Hampshire. He's served with Habitat for Humanity and World Changers.

At school, he worked on the school newspaper and yearbook and served as president of his school's Model UN chapter, president of the FBLA chapter and vice president of the DECA chapter. He also founded a club called Young Progressives, designed to encourage students to discuss politics.

Burke's resume is no less impressive. The rising senior at South Gwinnett High School was recently elected as a state officer for FBLA. She was selected as a 21st Century Leader. She tutors students at school, teaches piano and helps set up an eighth-grade night at her school.

In this upcoming year, the 17-year-old said she aspires to be named to the State Superintendent of School's Student Advisory Council, earn a spot at the U.S. Senate Youth Program and organize a charity event for the March of Dimes, all while taking Advanced Placement and gifted classes and maintaining her 4.0 grade-point average.

As much as she has accomplished, Burke initially hesitated to apply for the BOA Student Leaders program because she said she suffers from a fear of failure.

"I've learned I can do whatever I want," she said. "I can do what I put my mind to as long as I'm willing to work for it."

Bank of America selects students like Lopez and Burke for the leadership program because they are answering the nation's call to service, said Geri Thomas, Bank of America state president of Georgia and Atlanta market president, chief diversity and inclusion executive.

"They serve as exemplary role models, reflecting a passion for improving their communities and helping others," Thomas said. "Through the Students Leaders program, the bank is providing opportunities for this next generation of leaders to return to their communities, empowered and energized to find solutions to our most serious economic and social issues."

John Davis, lead development officer for the United Way, said its a great opportunity for the organization to have such talented and energetic people working for it.

"It's pretty inspiring to see young people that age that are so committed to the community," he said.

In addition to the internships, Student Leaders participated in a weeklong Student Leadership Summit in July in Washington, D.C. Now in its fourth year, the goal of the summit is to inspire students to remain committed to service and to equip them with tools and resources to continue their positive contributions in their communities.

Burke said she has learned important lessons this summer.

"Not only can I lead myself and make sure I do a great job, I can lead others and make them be successful and better their schools and communities," she said.

Lopez said the entire experience has been life-changing.

"It's really inspired me to work harder," Lopez said. "It gave me the perspective to never be content with what you're doing. You can always do more for your community."