Loudoun’s Future Leaders Learn Valued Life Skills

More than two dozen of Loudoun’s high school youth came together this week to learn about what it takes to be a leader in the modern world.

On Thursday, 28 Loudoun County high schoolers visited REI Systems in Sterling. It was just one of the stops in the weeklong Loudoun Youth Leadership Program hosted by Loudoun Youth, Inc. The program is designed to introduce rising high school sophomores, juniors and seniors to leadership concepts and give them a chance to interact with local business, government and community leaders. The visit to the tech company saw the students tour the premises, learn more about leadership skills and work together in an attempt to win the marshmallow challenge.

The students began their day at REI Systems, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, with a tour led by Employee Experience Lead Alexandra “Sasha” Burgener, who showed them places like the building’s media lab and employee work areas and common areas, all of which are named for scientists. One of those is the Tony Stark room, named for Robert Downey, Jr.’s character in the movie “Iron Man.”

During the tour, Burgener told the students that if there’s something they like doing and can do it for eight hours each day, there’s a career out there for them. She also showed them a collage that REI Systems employees came together to make, pointing out that their cooperation brought the artwork together. “The collage doesn’t exist if you don’t have all the pieces in it,” she said.

After the tour, the students split into six groups of five to compete in the marshmallow challenge—a competition that gives teams 18 minutes to build a free-standing structure with a marshmallow attached to the top using 20 pieces of uncooked spaghetti, one yard of tape and one yard of string.

One of six teams of high schoolers work together to build a free-standing structure made of spaghetti that can hold a marshmallow on top as part of the weeklong Loudoun Youth Leadership Program.
[Patrick Szabo/Loudoun Now]
The tallest still-standing structure was declared the winner. That team was comprised of Aaliyah Zagade, a rising Rock Ridge High School junior; Courtney Maynard, a rising Riverside High School junior; Jasmine Cruz, a rising John Champe High School junior; Lukas Proeschold, a rising Stone Bridge High School junior; and Sydney Ryan, a rising Loudoun County High School junior.

When Burgener asked the students afterward what they thought the purpose of the game was, Maynard said she felt it was all about collaboration and working together under pressure, noting that her team won by harnessing the pressure of the 18-minute deadline.

Burgener also asked the students whether any of the groups had declared a leader—an action none of the groups took. When Raashid Husain, a rising John Champe High School sophomore, said that he kept his feelings to himself so his team could get the work done, Burgener said that was one of the most honest answers she’s ever heard from anyone in her life.

REI Systems Employee Experience Lead Alexandra “Sasha” Burgener measures the second-place structure in the marshmallow challenge, which high schoolers competed in during the Loudoun Youth Leadership Program.
[Patrick Szabo/Loudoun Now]
“I feel like everyone was a leader,” said Ndeye Sock, a rising Rock Ridge senior.

The students also learned that, while feedback is good information to have when they’re looking to better themselves, they need to be self-aware enough to know which elements they should take into account. “Not every piece of feedback is something you need to change, or you would never be you,” Burgener said.

The students will finish the week out by participating in an entrepreneurial panel on Friday with Purpose WorX Founder Kindra Harvey; Mrs. Leesburg and 110 Fit Owner Libby Westphal; and Deb Haynes, vice president at Loudoun Clear Marketing.

They will also hear a talk on Youth Net from Loudoun Youth Founder Carol Kost and a keynote address from life coach Cindy Battino, followed by student presentations and a showing of a video summing up the week.


REI Systems Employee Experience Lead Alexandra “Sasha” Burgener shows a group of 28 high schoolers a collage employees made during the weeklong Loudoun Youth Leadership Program.
[Patrick Szabo/Loudoun Now]