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 leadership, scholarship and service.
This year, Zach VanHekken, a senior double majoring in science education and chemistry, was named a Leader of the Pack finalist. Though he was not the eventual winner, for him it remains a recognition of the work he has engaged in to build community through service.
“Even being named a finalist has been an outstanding honor,” VanHekken said. “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 try and make NC State the most exceptional university it absolutely can be.”
During his time at NC State, VanHekken, a Park Scholar, has served as an alternative service break leader, a peer mentorship co-director for the Park Scholarship, a teacher assistant for COM 466: Nonprofit Leadership and Development and as the chair of Service Raleigh’s community involvement committee.
“When I’m asked what my definition of services 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 I can to put my own skills to good use to serve the betterment of our campus, has been really important to me. “
With Service Raleigh, VanHekken is working to recruit volunteers for the organization’s annual citywide day of service on April 1. It is the largest single day of service in the Triangle and VanHekken is hoping to recruit about 2,000 participants who will engage in a variety of projects assisting local organizations.
“We really encourage everyone to register because it really is an exceptional day to get out and serve,” VanHekken said. “Our goal with Service Raleigh is to hopefully create a culture of service in Triangle that doesn’t just become a day, but it becomes a way for people to network within the service area and find something that they’re passionate about.”
Service Raleigh was started in 1998 by NC State’s Student Government and the Park Scholars, but it is open to all, and VanHekken has taken advantage of his time spent at field experiences through the College of Education to widen his net of potential volunteers.
“I’ve been able to plug in and work with their guidance counselors to recruit groups of students from local high schools to come in and serve with us,” VanHekken said.
During his time at NC State, VanHekken has also served as the Leadership Development Program intern in Student Leadership and Engagement, as an admission intern with Undergraduate Admissions, a University Honors Program Ambassador, the 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 premiere leadership opportunities came when he was on the committee to organize the Park Scholars’ Class of 2023 and Class of 2024 Learning Lab II. When asked to come up with a topic, they decided to focus on leadership in K-12 education equity and access.
“Education impacts everyone,” VanHekken said. “Regardless of what your major is at NC State, you’re coming from schooling, whether it is public, charter or private, and someday, if you choose to have kids, they’re going to be going through an education system as well. Being knowledgeable about the role that the education system plays 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 D.C., with individual classes of Park Scholars interacting with leaders immersed in national and global issues. But, faced with planning the 2021 event during the COVID-19 pandemic, VanHekken and the rest of the committee instead decided to hold it in Raleigh, where they hosted local, state and national leaders in the field of education and toured local schools, including Centennial Campus Magnet Middle School, an NC State College of Education partner school where VanHekken had his first field experience.
“Being one of the education majors in the room and seeing some of the gears turn in the heads of some of my peers, who maybe have a newfound respect or are seeing the work the College of Education is doing, was really incredible,” VanHekken said.
VanHekken knows from his field experiences that the classroom can be the perfect place to witness the melding of service and leadership.
“Being in all of these places has shown me, really, the power of education,” VanHekken said. “Regardless of the classroom I was in, there was an exceptional teacher leading that classroom that was committed to helping students both learn the content and feel like school was a place that they could excel.”
VanHekken will graduate in May, but he is looking forward to continuing to serve, whether through the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership organization, which he has been involved in since high school, or through a variety of a potential career opportunities, including teaching in Wake County, pursuing a master’s degree in higher education administration or working in the educational technology field.
“I have a lot of passions and the College of Education has helped me explore all those passions,” VanHekken said. “There’s a variety of skills that are gained through a degree in education that will help me better both the state of North Carolina and the nation in whatever role comes next.”