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Valentina overlooks a field of greenery with mountains in the background.
Alarcon has lived in four other countries and enjoys traveling and connecting with people across the globe. | Image: Courtesy of Valentina Alarcon

Originally from Colombia, Valentina Alarcon, a student in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at Texas A&M University and participant in the Zachry Leadership Program (ZLP), moved to Oklahoma during the first grade. Since then, she’s lived in four countries, including Brazil and the United Arab Emirates, and her passion for traveling and helping others has only grown. 

Alarcon’s mother, a petroleum engineer, inspired Alarcon to get into engineering at Texas A&M. Originally enrolled as a mechanical engineering student, Alarcon was hoping to find a creative field where she could combine her love of art and physics. After attending a entry-to-a-major presentation by nuclear engineering professor Dr. Lin Shao, Alarcon began to think about changing her major.

“I like to say that nuclear engineering found me,” said Alarcon. “I didn’t know how it connected to things like radiology in health or propulsion for aircrafts or how many career paths it could open up to me — I was just amazed by it.”

 Alarcon had already enrolled in the ZLP, by the time she joined the department, and she credits the program for helping her discover what she truly wanted to study.

Alarcon originally applied for the Zachry Leadership Program because she knew it would look good on her resume. The ZLP is a five-semester long program with an accompanying academic certificate in holistic leadership, and students emerge from the program with an appreciation for the power of collaboration and the diversity of thought, while also learning to become a better leader in any and every aspect of their lives. But Alarcon wasn’t prepared for how much of a revolutionary experience it would be — or how little her resume would matter.  

“Throughout the interview process, they didn’t ask any engineering questions at all,” said Alarcon. “They didn’t even want my GPA, they just wanted to know who I was as a person.” 

What is holistic leadership and what does it look like? The ZLP stresses the importance of self-awareness and self-management. Students continue to delve deeper into understanding who they are and what they want out of life before they begin to learn how to lead others.

Alarcon poses against the Great Wall of China overlooking vibrant and lush mountains covered by fog.
Valentina Alarcon joined the Zachry Leadership Program to better learn the importance of business, leadership and service. | Image: Courtesy of Valentina Alarcon

Each semester of the program includes a mandatory pre-semester retreat that is an intensive, multiday event consisting of experiential learning, interactive exercises and dialogue. While elaborate, the retreats are often everybody’s favorite part of the ZLP.

“Journaling is an amazing tool that I picked up from the first retreat and have used ever since,” commented Alarcon. “As well as how to use a vision board. They’re both great for visualizing your future, your goals in life and the steps you need to take to get there.”

 According to Alarcon, some of the best qualities a leader can cultivate are vulnerability and the ability to collaborate with others.

“I think when you’re vulnerable with others, people are more likely to respond and relate to you,” said Alarcon. “Being vulnerable and authentic helps you earn the right to influence others, and that’s what makes you a good leader — earning respect,” said Alarcon, adding that this is especially important in engineering, where you have to be able to work well with others, both academically and professionally.

Business is one of the three pillars of the ZLP, along with leadership and service, and Alarcon has already been using the entrepreneurial skills she’s learned from the program. So far, she’s helped design a portable air purifier prototype as part of the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps program and a fitness app that connects trainers and trainees as part of the Student Engineers’ Council Directed Internship. 

“I still crave that creative, innovative side of engineering,” said Alarcon. “But the ZLP has taught me that being a leader doesn’t necessarily mean achieving something amazing or incredible. It just means leaving the world a little bit better than you found it every day.”