Christina, with Manny Medina and Vince Zarrilli, after being named Technology Student Leader of the Year by GMCC

I am often unsurprised by the paths our Seedlings take – delighted and thrilled for them –but unsurprised all the same. When my now seventeen year old son, Alex, was a Seedling, he donned a cape and jumped off the top of the swingset. In his very literal mind, capes equaled flight.  Fortunately, he landed in sand and was startled, disappointed – but unhurt. To this day he is a realist through and through – imaginary worlds remain a bit foreign to him. So when I learned that Christina Zarrilli was named the Technology Student Leader of the Year by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, I wasn’t surprised. Christina was a very curious and adventurous Seedling with boundless energy who clearly enjoyed a challenge even then. I asked Christina to tell me more about her life and interests and what I learned is truly awe-inspiring.

Christina is a junior in Florida Atlantic University College of Engineering & Computer Science’s Innovation Leadership Honors Program majoring in Ocean Engineering. At fourteen, she was invited to be a full time dually enrolled college student at FAU and by the time she graduated high school she had 95 college credits. She’s logged over 4500 volunteer hours: She volunteers with the Civil Air Patrol, her church, the university’s Service Learning Board, the Society of Women Engineers and FAU’s engineering sorority. She sees a direct connection between her Civil Air Patrol work and her years as a Seedling and Sunflower theatre student. She says,

“I think the theatrical experience of speaking in front of an audience, cooperative play, respect for other cultures and learning how to deal with boys as a little girl gave me the confidence I needed to navigate the outside world and male dominated organizations. This was demonstrated as I was moved up the ranks to become Cadet Lieutenant Colonel and held command positions within the Civil Air Patrol, the official US Air Force Auxiliary, which is 90 percent men…. When I think back on Seedlings I remember that I was drawn to the rough and tumble action of the boys. We created our own games and rules. I held my own as “King” of the mountain and through cooperative play we built great elaborate forts. I enjoyed Sunflower’s theater group where each person’s talents were recognized and appreciated. I didn’t have to be a princess as most of the other girls preferred, but was able to create my own role as Ceeco the Italian pirate. I fancied playing the hero jumping over board to saving a drowning princess and devising a plan with my fellow pirates and rescuing the princesses from an evil warlock.”

Ceeco and her fellow pirates

Through the Civil Air Patrol, Christina has participated in real life rescues and disaster relief efforts. In her own words, “People called us heroes as we delivered food, water and ice to desperate senior citizens. Hurricane after hurricane, from dawn to dusk, day after day, we knocked on doors delivering necessities, comfort and solace. I will be forever grateful that I was there at the right time and place to help save a person’s life.”

Cadet Commander Zarrilli coordinating search and rescue operations

She recalls that at Seedlings, “We celebrated and respected different cultures and religious traditions. I loved the Chinese New Year dragons, doing the Mexican hat dance, singing Santa Lucia, playing dreidel dreidel and eating latkes.” As a Cadet leader, she works to make sure that the Jewish, Christian and Muslim members’ traditions of worship and ritual are equally respected. She has been recognized twice by a Native American tribe for her work promoting tolerance and diversity.

This fall she will be a senior. FAU has already awarded and published three of her technical papers and asked her to represent the University as a speaker on numerous occasions. She has held her own in the male dominated field of engineering, “I am often chosen to be the project manager. I knew from Seedlings that great things can be achieved and built by working together toward a common goal. As such, I make sure that everyone is heard and we explore all options before starting a project and assign tasks that utilize the individual’s talents. Then I make sure we have a plan, stay on task, budget, schedule and work as a team.”

Christina loved the thrill of climbing this tree at Seedlings

She also credits Sunflower with fostering her deep respect for the natural world. I remember that Christina loved the vegetable garden that the Seedlings planted and cultivated together. “During those Seedling days I learned about taking care of the earth and all its plants and creatures as we are all interconnected. Recycling and finding new uses for discarded items were part of the Sunflower environment. I believe this early exposure is a key factor in my education and career focus. I have turned my attention to finding ways to protect our environment. At FAU we are involved in ocean energy research which has the potential of producing as much energy as a nuclear plant but without the dangers.”

Her career goals are to use her “training to educate others about the importance of conservation and to bring ocean energy to fruition, making it practical, affordable and available to people worldwide.” Her focus includes promoting international conservation, environmental protection and alternative energy policies – she believes these are important for the nation’s and world’s future. It’s nearly impossible not to be inspired by Christina. She is a living example of the difference one person can make, especially one person who cares for the planet and the diversity of the people on it. She quite literally makes my heart sing, and fills me with gratitude that Sunflower has always viewed each Seedlings as the very precious individuals they are.

© Jennifer Ligeti and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012