Engagement Matters: How DA’s service-learning lessons impacted my professional development by Derek Rhodes '11


Throughout my career, I’ve worked across a wide range of sharply contrasting industries. I spent time in government, working in the epicenter of American politics at The White House. I worked in professional sports for the Miami Heat. And I’ve even worked for Google, one of the world’s most powerful companies. Working for these esteemed companies and organizations was the result of hard work, networking and developing a marketable skill set. Even then, there’s one concept that’s pushed me further than I ever thought I could go: engagement.

Engagement is a complex concept — it means a lot of things to a lot of different people. For some, it’s driven through a need to serve. For others, the connection is about a personal or business need. But for me, it’s not defined by a single act or mission but instead represents a myriad of my experiences and interests. 

My initial understanding of engagement came through community service. As a student at Durham Academy, I was constantly encouraged to support the local community by volunteering with Special Olympics or on numerous Community Service Days, or helping at the Food Bank (my personal favorite). At the time, it was clear to me that my efforts were serving a greater purpose.  But it was my teachers who helped connect the dots.

These community service activities weren’t one-off events that the students participated in and then forgot about. Once we were back at school, we’d write and reflect on the value of our activities and connect them to lessons we’d covered in class. This was independent of the subject. Be it English, chemistry, Spanish, or history, my teachers took the time to connect our academic lessons to our service and personal development. It was through these events that I started to understand the complexity of engagement — that it wasn’t just about the action.

One of my teachers, Mr. Owen Bryant, used his history class to cover more than dates of battles.  He dove deeper. For example, he taught me about the different opinions and interpretations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Cornel West’s Race Matters. On the surface, both texts seem to have a clear mission and impact. But the reader determines how deeply engaging these works are, not the work itself. 

It was here that I developed a love for examining lessons from the past and exploring how a community could shift and change over time. I wasn’t excited about the details (i.e., dates, names, etc.). Instead, I was fascinated by the connection between these facts and current events. This passion led me to major in Public Policy at Duke University later in my academic career.

The more I learned, the more I realized just how important those engagement lessons were.  Engagement extends so far beyond just volunteering for community organizations. It’s a lifelong effort that’s infused in your daily activities and throughout your professional life. It’s not about a one-to-one exchange, or a single instance. It’s about the greater reach and the lasting impact. Early on, I learned that engaging in one’s community is an extension of the classroom. Both work symbiotically to shape mission-driven individuals. And the skills, knowledge and focus we bring to our communities continues to inspire long-term change.

As I reflect on my time with Google, the Miami Heat, and the White House, I think about the role engagement played in my professional progression. I was successful because I always took on a variety of projects with people from different backgrounds and walks of life, as I had been encouraged to do each day at Durham Academy. Even within these isolated professional ecosystems, I had a focus on community engagement. In this sense, the community consisted of everyone around me — those by my side and those above or below my position. 

Years after learning what engagement meant, my understanding of it continues to evolve and affect my life in many ways. It’s a journey that started at Durham Academy, and it’s one that continues as I travel to schools across the nation, speaking about my book Jimmy for the City.  Durham Academy, and this important life lesson, had such a profound effect on my life, and that’s a message I’ll never tire of delivering.

Durham Academy