Derek Chen pursues Self-Understanding and Integrity through service with VT Engage

Derek Chen
Derek Chen

The university’s motto, Ut Prosim – That I May Serve, means different things to different people.

Derek Chen found his Ut Prosim through service. He said, “Getting involved with VT Engage meant I was surrounded by people who are so different, yet have a common purpose and understanding of what is important.”

Derek has participated in service projects for park preservation on the Blue Ridge Parkway, food justice in New Hampshire, community and youth development in the Dominican Republic, urban farming in Maryland, and environmental stewardship in Prince William Forest Park in Virginia. He works tirelessly with Campus Kitchen, coordinating volunteers, managing inventory, and arranging deliveries to hunger-relief agencies in the New River Valley.

Derek said, “Service is not just completing a task and then leaving. You need to learn about the issues and the community history to give you context. I’m always chasing the stories of individuals and their culture. Service is about what they need – not what you think they need.”

A key part of Derek’s approach to service is reflection. His nominators wrote, “Derek is continually pushing the reflection to go deeper and for other leaders to think about the greater impact and root causes of issues.”

Derek said, “I think about why the work matters and how I, as an individual with distinct identities, affect the work I do. By creating a safe space where people are free to express themselves and can be civil about opposing views, you discover insights and perspectives they might not otherwise have. This is the most transformative experience of service.”

Through his life-changing experience in service, Derek discovered his interest in social issues and their relevance to what was happening in the world. He asked himself how he could move forward with this interest. And he made the big decision to change majors from biochemistry to sociology.

He said, “Switching to a major in sociology may seem like a simple act. But for me, it was letting go of the past and of the expectations of myself and my family. I went with my gut feeling. It felt right. I didn’t have much of a plan – which scared my mom -- but I haven’t regretted it yet.”

Derek’s philosophy is this:

  • Try new things. Keep an open mind. This is what makes you most susceptible to inspiration.

  • Pursue an education, not just a degree. There is no end to learning. Learning about yourself, your community, and your work opens up a whole new world.

  • Show self-compassion. Treat yourself as you treat your friends. Let others comfort you if something goes wrong.

  • Be an active listener. Find the stories we don’t hear about. Create your own story by connecting with people and forming relationships.

  • Take care of yourself. Our culture moves at a fast pace. Give yourself some quiet time to clear your mind and be at peace.