Local students attend 'Leadership Unplugged'

By Johnny Jackson


Seventeen-year-old Alexander Levy says he believes he is well on his way to becoming a leader, partly because of his experience in this year's "Leadership Unplugged: A CNN Experience."

The week-long event, he says, has been an eye-opener for him. "I'm the type of person who is interested in any program that can help me develop my leadership skills," says Levy, a senior at Henry County High School.

Leadership Unplugged, in its fourth year, is a partnership among CNN Worldwide, the Turner Broadcasting System, and 21st Century Leaders. It provides a learning experience for rising high school juniors and seniors throughout Georgia, in media literacy, journalism and personal leadership.

Four students in Henry County, including Levy, spent the week on the Georgia Institute of Technology campus. Levy and three other Henry County students - 16-year-olds Aftyn Tiffner, Loni Gibson, and Christian Mitchell - were among 100 students selected from a deep pool of applicants statewide, according to Susan Grant, executive vice president of CNN News Services.

"My CNN colleagues and I are thrilled to offer these exceptional young people a forum to further develop their personal leadership styles, as well as learn more about some of the most critical challenges facing media professionals every day," Grant says. "The opportunity to mentor Leadership Unplugged ambassadors is an honor for CNN executives and anchors alike, and we hope each of the students gains as much from the experience as we do each year."

The students learned about how news stories are presented on different platforms, as well as how social networking has impacted the media landscape. They also participated in workshops and discussion groups on topics ranging from diversity, to ethics in media, to audience engagement.

"I want to get into broadcast journalism," says Tiffner, a junior at Ola High School. "I love the news, I really do. The media just fascinates me, because it changes so much. They're the first people to know. It just seems like they are some of the most informed people about everything that happens in the world."

Many attending the program, however, had little interest in becoming journalists, according to Bob Watson, executive director of 21st Century Leaders, Inc., which has conducted similar summer programs since 1991.

"We've had over 4,000 high school students go through our summer program," Watson says. "Our objective is to build leadership skills that students can take into college and into the workforce. This isn't a journalism program, per se. Leadership, diversity, and media literacy. The second aim, or goal, is diversity as diversity drives innovation."

The point in providing students with a media-literate foundation is to encourage them to be informed citizens, explains Watson, willing to pull from different cultures and points of view to formulate their own educated view points, as they develop into future leaders.

"My favorite part of the program was actually getting to know my peers," adds Mitchell, a junior at Eagle's Landing High School. "It's a relief to know that there are other people outside of my school who are interested in creating work that they're proud of. It's amazing, it's absolutely amazing."

Mitchell says he steered away from most things related to journalism, but admits he sees the occupation as a valuable instrument in disseminating relevant information.

"At first, I wanted to be a physical therapist," he continues. "And now, I'm thinking about becoming a journalist. Don't get me wrong, I love writing, but I thought journalism was just going to be a lot of writing ... If I could go back and do it again, I would."

Participants attended panels and mentoring sessions featuring CNN executives, reporters and anchors, including CNN's Kyra Phillips and Tony Harris, Headline News' Richard Lui, CNN International's Colleen McEdwards, and CNN.com's Reggie Aqui and Melissa Long.

Gibson says she was impressed by the line-up of experienced professionals. "My dream is to grow up and become a broadcast journalist," says Gibson, a junior at Dutchtown High School. "I love reporting information and keeping people in the know. I have a passion for knowing things and learning. We learned how to encourage, how to trust, and how to challenge. It's just those things you learn that you can take with you in life with any career path that you take."

Students were asked to work in teams to develop a story idea based upon the lessons they learned throughout the week at Leadership Unplugged, which is based on a curriculum developed by former high school teacher Donna Krache.

"We explore new dimensions of media," says Krache, executive producer for CNN Student News. "I'm a former high school teacher, so I kind of live in both worlds [of production and education].

"That's basically teaching the next generation to be good news consumers - what's the difference between what you see in a blog and what's reported by a news organization," she adds. "They're walking away with a very broad initial exposure to media literacy, diversity, and leadership."