One piece of advice Darien High School salutatorian Alexis Zitzmann said she would like to give her classmates is to take the opportunities and challenges that are presented to them and “don’t be afraid to take risks.”

One challenge Alexis faced was coming into Darien High School her sophomore year. “A lot of people already had friend groups,” Alexis said. “I came in as the new kid and it was scary and daunting.”

She said that she conquered her challenge by “opening myself up to people.”

Competition

Alexis, who plans to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is captain at the Maritime Rowing Club in Norwalk and rows for MIT’s lightweight women’s team.

She said being on the team has taught her many lifelong skills, the first of which is the importance of teamwork.

“I’m in a boat with three other people,” she said. “It’s not just based on me and my individual performance, but on working with the people in my boat as well. We need to have a trust and be able to work together.”

Alexis plans to continue to be a part of the sport in MIT’s rowing program as a college freshman.

In addition, from ages 5 to 13, Alexis was a competitive gymnast for both the U.S. Junior Olympic Program and the German National Program.

“Growing up a gymnast taught me a lot about hard work, working through the pain, being an independent athlete and being completely focused,” Alexis said.

Cultural experiences

Alexis lived for a two years in Frankfurt, Germany, and has a dual U.S. and German citizenship. She is fluent in English, German, and is proficient in French.

In seventh and eighth grade, she attended the Metropolitan School Frankfurt, an international school in Germany. She said that to this day, that has been her most influential experience.

“It was there that I was around students who spoke multiple languages including Italian, Moroccan, Greek, Austrian, British, and Iranian,” she said. “Everyone spoke about three languages.”

She added that it was not just learning about cultures in a classroom that provided her experience, but it was “getting to know all these students as your best friends and hearing their stories, which was amazing,” she said.

Several years later, when Alexis was 15, she spent a month of her summer in rural Laos and Thailand doing community service in a program called Rustic Pathways.

“The theme of the program is you learn about the culture by living like they do,” Alexis said.

“On this trip, you don’t come with one big suitcase,” she said. “I came with just five items, including one change of clothes, my phone, and a journal.”

She traveled to three different villages and stayed with families who live in them.

“We worked with them on multiple projects, including helping to build a school,” Alexis said. She also helped build a road and a foundation for a community building.

Through this experience, she learned a lot about the people.

“I learned how hardworking they are,” she said.

Additionally, she said she discovered that there are ways to communicate with people that are not verbal — such as through body language and hand gestures.

She said she learned there are many similarities with her culture and the culture of Thailand.

While conversing with the people of Thailand through an interpreter, “I was able to hear their stories and discover that we had common values. One woman told me she wanted to travel the world and how she always wanted to see the ocean, and that’s exactly how I feel as well.”

“Even though our lives were so completely different, we were still able to laugh together and find humor in the same things,” she said.

Role model

Alexis’ role model is her grandmother, Elaina McCartney, who lives in Ithaca, N.Y.

“In high school, she told her teacher she wanted to be a vet, however she was told that was not an appropriate job for women,” Alexis said.

McCartney then received a bachelor of arts degree in English from Cornell University in 1966 and worked as a typist in Cornell’s mechanical and aerospace engineering department.

“At age 49, she went back to school and received a master’s degree in engineering in computer science while working full time,” she said.

She then got a job in Space Sciences at Cornell, working on various NASA missions.

“She inspires me to keep working in the face of adversity and that it’s never too late to try something new, make a change, and pursue your dreams,” she said.

Darien High School

Alexis’ all-time favorite class at Darien High School was AP European history, taught by Dennis Cummings, which she took in her junior year.

“He was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met,” Alexis said. “The amount of information he knew impressed me so much every day. He was very smart in being able to educate from an unbiased perspective about history and present from all different sides.”

Alexis acknowledges that it has been very hard for everyone during these challenging times.

“We lost a lot of opportunities and it’s very frustrating,” she said. “It breaks my heart that I lost some time with the people who I won’t get to spend as much time with once I leave for college.”

However, she tells her classmates not to “just give up and stop living because it wasn’t the senior spring you expected,” she said.“Try and look past what we should have or could have and make the best of the time we have left.”

sfox@darientimes.com