Aspire Leaders Program Fellow Bryan Zapata: Bridging Divides to Better the World

Apr 18, 2024
Bryan Zapata grins at camera, showing the laptop screen that signals he finished the Aspire Leaders Program
Bryan Zapata demonstrates completion of the Aspire Leaders Program.

The Aspire Leaders Program aims to provide fully funded leadership development for underserved youth, connecting fellows with remote access to Harvard coursework, networking opportunities with global peers and world-class educators, and the opportunities for grants and social impact project seed funds. 

We had the pleasure of speaking with Bryan Zapata, an Aspire Leaders Program Fellow, about his fellowship experience. Bryan shared with us his multidisciplinary journey in journalism and engineering, how the Aspire Leaders Program helped him create a dialogue with diverse communities locally, and how he’s continued to channel his passion for improving the world through several initiatives like the Hispanic Scholarship Fund.

Tell us about your background and professional journey. What led you to the Aspire Leaders Program?

My life experiences have made me passionate about engineering, storytelling, and US/World politics. I am originally from Sterling Park, Virginia, and am the child of two Colombian immigrants. Sterling Park was a majority-minority area where most people grew up living paycheck to paycheck and had very little aspirations. 

Like many people from Sterling Park, I was not expected to go far. Though born in the US, English was my second language, and I struggled to do well in school. Sterling Park was the most underserved area in the wealthiest county in the country – meaning none of the other high schools could relate to our struggles. Nonetheless, these experiences of inequality inspired me to become an advocate for building bridges of empathy. 

My time at Virginia Tech seemed like it happened in a different world. A pandemic, social unrest, the war in Ukraine, more mass shootings, gas prices higher than our GPAs, and so many unanswered questions. I studied industrial and systems engineering with a minor in political science during a tumultuous time. However, these events allowed me to discover a call to action. My passion for bringing divided people together and committing to a life of service is seen in the various roles I’ve taken. From reporting on the Cuban protest at the White House to studying the unchecked uses of applications in media databases, I have integrated my passion for serving others professionally. 

These experiences inspired me to apply for the Aspire Institute. I was looking for an opportunity to use my life experiences to connect with people from other parts of the globe. I wanted to work with young leaders who care about the people around them and yearn to provide upward mobility to their communities. The Aspire community challenged me to think globally and use my STEM background to think of new ways to address victims of war and how to assist displaced people better. At the end of the program, I was equipped with a global community united under one shared mission to make the world a better place for everyone. 

A zoom screen with Meen Sonea centered, Bryan Zapata and his cohort members are visible on the sidebar
Meena Sonea, Executive Director of the Aspire Institute, speaks to Bryan and his Aspire Fellowship cohort about the importance of service to the world. Completing the Aspire program is a commitment to a call to action to become global citizens and improve communities.

Can you describe what a week in the life of an Aspire Leader Program Fellow is like? What were some of the most valuable parts of the program?

As an Aspire Leader Program Fellow, I was given weekly assignments on important topics and had to discuss them with other cohort members while applying them to my daily life. One example was the lack of affordable cardiovascular surgeries in South Asia. In the United States, the average heart procedure costs $36,800 and is inaccessible to 75% of the global population. We were challenged to think about how we can make high-quality medical services accessible to low-income civilians. Harvard Business School professor Tarun Khanna ignited the conversation by stating that if we invested $350 billion, we could get a return of $21 trillion. This is what inspired Dr. Khanna to work with economists to strategically invest in the Asian economy to make heart procedures more affordable and drive the political will to make it happen. 

Outside of our cohort discussions, I would apply these lessons in my life in Seattle, WA. Seattle is a place rich with mountains, diversity, and tranquility. Unlike many other cities, it rains often and is cloudy 70% of the time. However, with its unique history in pop music, growth in tech and aviation, and ethnic diversity, it is one of the most inclusive and empathetic cities in the United States. Aspire has given me the tools necessary to connect ideas from around the globe to Seattle. I have been able to have conversations with the LGBTQ+, Native American, and Asian communities and how they all share the same hopes and dreams with others, not just in America but in South Asia. I have become a global citizen and see the importance of bringing down division and building bridges made of empathy. 

Zoom screenshot of Jennifer Leaning, with Bryan Zapata and cohort members visible on the sidebar
Jennifer Leaning, Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at Harvard Chan School of Public Health, shares with Aspire Fellows the laws of war and how the War in Ukraine is impacting public health services around the world.

The Aspire Leaders Program features virtual professional development resources from world-renowned educators. How did these opportunities advance your career and expand your professional network? 

The Aspire Leaders Program inspired me to never give up on my dreams. At the end of my college years, I discovered my passion for politics and addressing world issues, but I did not know how to get into the political realm from industrial engineering. Going through the Aspire program allowed me to see the importance of career diversity. My engineering, political science, and journalism background is just as important in the campaign to solve our world’s most pressing issues. 

What moved me the most was our discussion with 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Leymah Gbowee. Her discussion on the absence of war does not always equate to peace and challenged me to take my political science and journalism skills to a deeper dimension. Just because there isn’t a bomb doesn’t mean a society is thriving. There are many components that make up a functioning society that best serves its people. Ms. Leymah explained that a functional society creates channels for every person to contribute with dignity and respect. If we fail to invest in the younger generation, then society will become unproductive. 

Through this fellowship, I have been challenged to learn about different topics, such as the immigration system and US foreign policy in Latin America and Asia, to understand how the narratives of young leaders differ. Connecting with immigration attorneys, law professors, and executive leaders in engineering has allowed me to see the many types of leaders we need to give more people opportunities for positive contributions. This has given me the power to connect with the Asian, LGBTQ+, and Native American communities and understand how US policies impact our communities and how we can serve each other. I have taken action by serving the Hispanic Scholarship Fund by bringing Hispanic leaders from all over the country and sharing their unique Hispanic stories and how we can connect with other groups. 

I have discovered that networking is more than who you know and who knows you. The true power of networking comes from building bridges with different leaders from different industries and bringing them together to improve the lives of everyday people. 

Bryan Zapata at the 2023 Hispanic Scholarship Fund Media and Entertainment Summit with his team of mentees.
Bryan Zapata was a mentor for the 2023 Hispanic Scholarship Fund Media and Entertainment Summit. He had the honor of mentoring the nation’s top Hispanic leaders on career success and how to redefine the Latinx narrative in our world.

How did the Aspire Leaders Program impact your journey and aspirations? 

Aspire has challenged me to think globally and to work globally. Being exposed to a global community of young leaders who know the struggles of being a minority in their community inspires me to connect with other parts of the globe. Aspire has challenged me to think about ways to work internationally and take on roles that allow me to impact the lives of others in countries oceans apart. 

Through my role at Boeing, I connected with the presidents of Boeing Japan and Boeing Korea to ask what challenges Boeing faces in the Asian world and how they are similar to what we experience in the US. I’ve seen that it takes understanding different cultures and their problem-solving methods to deliver zero-carbon emission airplanes and serve underdeveloped nations with little access to aviation services. 

Aspire has compelled me to champion my life mission of bringing divided people together. Through the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers National Convention, I connected with Hispanic engineers from across the country and related their unique experiences to revolve around one common goal. Providing internship and full-time opportunities to Hispanic students who dare to challenge Boeing to be the first to arrive on Mars has allowed me to invest in the younger generation. 

My service with the Hispanic Scholarship Fund at the 2023 Media and Entertainment Summit in Hollywood made me discover my passion for politics. Connecting with the country’s brightest Hispanic leaders, equipping scholars with the tools necessary for career success, and inspiring them to pursue their dreams allowed me to discover a passion for creating world leaders. I’ve found that there is power in difference and that our differences make us more alike. Though our stories are singular, our destinies are shared, which fosters empathy that brings us all together. At the end of the conference, I committed to the call to action to influence political ideals that bring compassion and empathy to everyone and inspire future generations to do the same. This, for me, is how we can create the world we can all coexist in. 

What advice do you have for others applying for the Aspire Leaders Program?

Before applying to Aspire, understand who you are and what your life mission is. Then, have a conversation with different communities to understand what commonalities exist versus what sets you apart. Once you have built the basic principles of compassion, challenge yourself by asking how you can foster empathy and share that empathy with other people. How does your life mission and talents contribute to a greater purpose? 

Be bold and unleash your best self when applying. Success is not about the awards you win or the titles you possess. Success is about living a life where you choose to listen, hear, and understand others and find ways to use each other to build bridges made out of empathy that can be used to improve the lives of everyday people. The Aspire Fellowship aims to turn leaders into change makers, and it cannot be done without these basic principles.

Interested in the Aspire Leaders Program? Be sure to bookmark this fellowship to your ProFellow account where you can access 2700+ opportunites and fully funded programs!

Bryan Zapata is a global citizen who aspires to make life better for everyday people. He embraces the “Yes we can” and “the darkest nights produce the brightest stars” quotes in his daily life. Bryan is a 2022 graduate of Virginia Tech, majoring in industrial and systems engineering with political science. Bryan’s life experiences have allowed him to discover powers he never knew he had, such as bridging divided groups and communities together. Bryan has been a news reporter for the Latino News Network, a keynote speaker on essential topics with young leaders, and a production engineer for the 767 program at Boeing. Bryan strives to use engineering, storytelling, and politics to change the policies that impact our world by bringing divided communities together and expanding opportunities for the downtrodden.

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