What does it mean to be a Leader of the Pack? At NC State University, the award is given to a student who makes outstanding contributions in the areas of leadership, scholarship and service.
This year, Zach VanHekken, a senior double major in science education and chemistry, was named a Leader of the Pack finalist. While he wasn’t ultimately the winner, it remains a recognition for the work he has done to build community through service.
“Even being named a finalist was an outstanding honor,” said VanHekken. “It feels like the work I’ve done on campus has been seen as meaningful. And it will continue to empower me to keep working to make NC State the most extraordinary university there is by any means.”
During his time at NC State, VanHekken, a Park Scholar, served as Alternate Service Breaks Leader, Co-Director of Peer Mentoring for Park Scholarship, Teacher Assistant for COM 466: Nonprofit Leadership and Development, and Service Chair active Raleigh’s Community Engagement Committee.
“When I’m asked what my definition of service is, I always say that my definition of service is leadership and my definition of leadership is service, and I can’t separate those two things,” VanHekken said. “Trying to find as many places as possible where I can use my own skills to serve the betterment of our campus has been very important to me. “
VanHekken is working with Service Raleigh to recruit volunteers for the organization’s annual citywide service day on April 1st. It’s the largest single service day in the Triangle and VanHekken hopes to recruit around 2,000 participants who will get involved in a variety of projects supporting local organisations.
“We really encourage everyone to sign up because it’s truly an extraordinary day to go out and serve,” said VanHekken. “Hopefully, our goal with Service Raleigh is to create a culture of service in Triangle that will not just be a tag, but a way for people to connect within the service space and find something they are passionate about.”
Service Raleigh was started in 1998 by the NC student government and Park Scholars, but is open to all, and VanHekken used his time spent gaining hands-on experience at the College of Education to expand his network of potential volunteers.
“I’ve been able to tap into and work with their careers advisors to recruit groups of students from local high schools to come and minister with us,” VanHekken said.
While at NC State, VanHekken has also served as a Leadership Development Program intern in Student Leadership and Engagement, an Admissions Intern with Undergraduate Admissions, as an Ambassador for the University Honors Program, and as a Class of 2023 representative on the NC State Quality Enhancement Proposals Review team and as an intern with the North Carolina Teaching Fellows.
One of his first leadership opportunities came when he served on the committee organizing the Park Scholars’ Class of 2023 and Class of 2024 Learning Lab II. When asked to propose a topic, they decided to focus on leadership in K-12 education for equity and access.
“Education affects everyone,” said VanHekken. “Regardless of what your major is at NC State, you come from school, public, private, or private, and if one day you choose to have children, they will also go through an education system. Knowledge of the role played by the education system was at least for [the Class of 2023 and the Class of 2024]really, really important.”
The Learning Lab II experience is typically held in Washington DC, with individual classes of Park Scholars interacting with leaders who address national and global issues. With the 2021 event being planned during the COVID-19 pandemic, VanHekken and the rest of the committee decided instead to hold it in Raleigh, where they hosted local, state and national education leaders and visited local schools, including Centennial Campus Magnet Middle School, a partner school of NC State College of Education, where VanHekken got his first field experience.
“To be one of the education majors in the room and to see some of the gears turning in the minds of some of my colleagues who may have a newfound respect or see the work of the College of Education has been truly incredible,” VanHekken said.
VanHekken knows from his field experience that the classroom can be the perfect place to witness the merging of service and leadership.
“Being in all of these places has really shown me the power of education,” said VanHekken. “Regardless of the classroom I was in, there was an exceptional teacher leading that classroom who was committed to helping students learn and feel like school was a place where they can excel.”
VanHekken will graduate in May, but he looks forward to continuing to serve, whether through the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership organization, which he has been involved with since high school, or through a variety of potential career opportunities, including teaching Wake County, pursuing a master’s degree in higher education administration or working in the field of educational technology.
“I have many passions and the College of Education has helped me discover all of those passions,” said VanHekken. “There are a variety of skills acquired through an education degree that will help me improve both the state of North Carolina and the nation in every role that comes next.”