Zach VanHekken ‘23 Shares Why NC State and What is Next

By Autumn Phillips

When Park Scholar Zach VanHekken, Class of 2023, was looking at colleges, he wasn’t expecting to find the best fit over 800-miles from home at a university with over 36,000 people. But Zach’s experience as an out-of-state student has granted him a unique perspective of the Park Scholarship Program. Through his many leadership roles within the Park Scholars program and on NC State’s campus, Zach works hard to make a difference and ensure his voice is heard. In his time at NC State, Zach has been a co-chair of Learning Lab II, participated in three PEG opportunities, and was the student director of NC State’s Leadership Development Program. Those are just a few of the many ways Zach has demonstrated his leadership abilities and passion for creating an impact on his community.  We sat down with Zach to talk to him about the many activities he is involved in, why he chose NC State, and what is coming up next for him after graduation. 

 What made you decide to accept the Park Scholarship and move to North Carolina?

I’m twelve-and-a-half hours from Grand Rapids, Michigan, which I call home. I was really looking at colleges in Michigan. I applied to a few schools down in North Carolina because I worked as a summer camp counselor for a summer in Boone, so I had some connection to the state. But most of the other schools I was looking at were smaller schools. I came from a high school that had around three hundred students per class, so I was looking for a college where I would be able to participate in lots of leadership opportunities and service projects and where I wasn’t just one in the crowd. So at the time, I thought applying to NC State was a little bit of a stretch for me because of how large the institution is. When I came across the Park Scholarship, I really envisioned the community I could have, even at such a big school. I am an individual of value, just like the other thirty-nine members of my class. I don’t know of any other programs that I looked at that had the support that the Park Scholarship program has, that has the staff that is so dedicated to the program, and the students that want to continue to give back. With a lot of scholarships, I feel like it’s just a financial award. That is not going to be someone’s experience with Park if they are selected and elected to come here. It’s a holistic program. Yes, you earn a financial reward, but it’s focused on who you are as an individual and how you can grow over your four years here. It’s unique to the Park Scholarships, which is why I was drawn here from Michigan.

A group of Park Scholars with Chancellor Randy Woodson

What are your experiences with Park Enrichment Grants?

I’ve received three Park Enrichment Grants over the course of my time in the Park Scholars program. The first grant I received was during my first year. I went on an alternative service break to Costa Rica, where we studied ecosystems and ecology with a focus on sustainability. That trip was incredible; I learned a lot and got to know several other Park Scholars. With the second grant, I worked for Teaching Fellows of North Carolina. It is an educational institution that helps teachers fund their college experience through a forgivable loan program and really program development to make them the best future educators in the state. I worked with them to help recreate the curriculum the NC teaching fellows would go through during their time here at NC State. Lastly, this spring break, I was able to go to Paris with nine other Park Scholars on an Honors and Scholars Enrichment trip. The trip was focused on cultural immersion, so we got to do a lot of the touristy things in Paris, but it was an excellent opportunity, especially after COVID, for many park scholars to come back together through a common experience that we all shared. 

Zach ’23, Megan Cislo ’23, and Annie Kate Watson ’23 on an ASB in Costa Rica
Zach completing an internship with the Dementia Alliance of NC

Which Park Scholarship program transitions are you looking forward to?

I am really excited to see where the Park Scholarship program goes, specifically in the areas of what is constituted in a scholarship. In a lot of ways, when I started, scholarship was very much focused on test scores and grades. But we’ve seen now, over the last year, a lowering of the GPA requirement encourages scholars to pursue academic risk. I think that’s a unique thing because usually, when you think about scholarship, you don’t think about taking academic risks. One of my goals is to put myself in different positions to succeed in many ways. For example, last summer, I worked at a company on Centennial Campus called “Bandwidth” as what is called a scrum master intern. I worked with teams developing new technologies and helped them develop them more effectively using vital communication skills and project management planning. I would never have ventured so far out of my degree programs of Chemistry and Science education without the support of the Park Scholarships program and the mindset shift of not just focusing on academics. I’m encouraged to take chances that I may not have taken otherwise. That has been a powerful thing. I also always enjoy seeing alums get involved. As the classes graduate, I hope we see our younger alums become even more involved in the program over the next couple of years. 

Read about Zach’s study domestic experience during the pandemic.