WESTPORT, Conn. — Twenty-one-year-old Westporter Tessa Zimmerman was a straight A student — but was always anxious that if she didn’t get that A that she wouldn’t get into college.
But as a high school student, she learned how to step outside her anxiety, to watch it, but not participate in it. This made her determined to find that magic bullet to help other high school students with similar problems.
“Resilience is the antidote to stress and anxiety," she said.
She found the opportunity at Watson University in Boulder, Colo. A nontraditional college of 25 students, she called it, “an incubator for the next generation of change makers and social entrepreneurs.”
And she recently shared her story to Westport Sunrise Rotary, a story that resonated, perhaps because anxiety is such a universal problem in today’s fast-paced and often uncertain world. In fact, 83 percent of American teens find that “schools are a stress inducer,” and half of all U.S. students show symptoms of anxiety, she said.
The program Zimmerman created consists of 10 tools that are applied individually in five- to 10-minute segments in the classroom. They include yoga-like breathing exercises, as well as visualization and positive mind set exercises. Together, they focus the student on performing the task at hand rather than contemplating the future consequences of under performing.
These form the core of ASSET Education, a nonprofit she established to “teach students how to mitigate stress in the present so they can build resilience for the future.”
After vetting her program at Watson, ASSET Ed trained two teachers at Denver’s Green Valley Ranch School of Science and Technology in the social-emotional skills they need to teach the program. These teachers then led their 11th grade students through daily exercises. Zimmerman didn’t expect strong results.
Instead, the school recorded an 81 percent increase in the number of students earning As and Bs — in a school where 78 percent of the students receive free or reduced cost lunches. And after the program she said that 82 percent of the students wanted to continue using the exercises.
This led to winning a $9,000 grant that underwrote a summer Professional Development workshop for teachers at 11 more schools. There, she presented and handed out 23 lesson plans for her exercises. The result was that ASSET Ed reached 1,500 students across the Denver system in nine months.
This fall, she will bring her program to New York City, with the goal of reaching 20,000 students. As though all of this were not enough, Zimmerman just published a book, "I AM TESSA." In it she relates personal stories that provide insights into “tools and coping mechanisms that help young people thrive.”