“Ask an Alum” Communications and Political Science Major to Instructional Technician

Derrick Van Kirk graduated from University of Washington- Seattle in 2010 with a degree in Communications and Political Science. Before attending UW, Derrick spent 7 years working outside, building houses, before he decided to pursue his degree. Derrick  is now a MILL Instructional Technician for University of Washington Housing and Food Services (HFS), as well as the College of Engineering. Feel free to connect with Derrick about him journey, career, or education at dvank1@uw.edu.

We asked Derrick some questions about his career journey and what advice he would give to help launch his fellow huskies to success! Here is what Derrick had to say:


In what ways did your UW education support or advance your career?

My UW education was a unique experience. I attended the evening degree program rather than traditional day classes. The classes were smaller (30-40 students) and we had direct contact with the instructor. This allowed me to get to know my professors and fellow students and gave me an opportunity to learn about what career options were possible for me. My undergraduate degree also gave me the opportunity to learn how to research and write in an  efficient manner. This has been very important in my career because we use writing as one of the most prominent forms of communication.

What extra-curricular opportunities did you take advantage of while at UW?

I did one year of Husky Marching Band in 2011 after I had graduated. This was a fantastic experience. At the time, I hadn’t played and marched since high school. I graduated high school in 1997 so this was very difficult to re-learn and expand those skills. HMB was a great opportunity to work as a team. I still have friends that I met during my time in HMB.

Why did you choose to pursue a career in your field?

When I started going to college, I was working outside building houses. This was a fantastic career but it was hard on my body. I knew that at some point I would have to learn new skill that would allow me to work inside. So in 2005 I decided to go back to school. At the time, I wasn’t concerned about getting any degree in particular. I just thought that if I had a degree, doors would open for me. That proved to be true but it took a few years for that to happen. I graduated in 2010 when the economy was in a recession. Jobs were hard to come by regardless of what degree a person had. In many cases, I was competing with people who had masters degrees and multiple years of career experience. Initially, I got an internship at a political activist organization then moved on to another non-profit. Eventually I got a job with Boeing as a manufacturing planner. This was due to my experience as well as my degree. After working at Boeing for 3 years, I decided to come to UW to work in as a makerspace manager in Maple Hall. I’ve been here for just over 3 years now.

How is your current career the same or different than what you thought it would be when you began college?

My current career is nothing like I thought it would be when I started going to college. I had no idea that I would be working in higher education. I had no idea that I liked teaching and working with students as much as I do. This has been a fantastic experience that I couldn’t have planned out on my own.

What is something you wish you knew about finding a career while you were an undergrad?

One thing that I wish I would have considered is getting an undergraduate degree in a STEM related program. The job market and the economy are moving towards creating opportunities for people with STEM degrees. I do think that manufacturing still has a place in our economy but many companies want prospective employees to have some sort of STEM education. I think that this can separate students from the pack.

What advice do you have for current students looking at stepping into your career path?

Someone in my job needs to have a diverse skill set. You need to be able to work directly with people (students, student staff, professors, managers, vendors, sales people, etc.) and communicate your needs with them. You also have to be able to listen and provide feedback and information. Learning interpersonal skills and writing skills is very important. I would also advise students to learn hands on skills. Machining is a skill that is very useful in a space like this. I think that if a student has the ability to solve equations and write papers, they can increase their value to an employer significantly by being able to repair machines and make things to solve problems. Hands-on work is still a very valuable skill to have.

What are top skills your industry is looking for in new hires?

Interdisciplinary skills and the ability to work with people. Hands-on skills like maintenance and machining. The ability to organize and keep a space up. There are many things to keep track of and if you can stay organized you’re able to focus on other important parts of the job.

What aspects of the culture at your company or place of work do you appreciate?

I appreciate how Housing and Food Services gave me an opportunity to be a part of opening up the new space in McCarty Hall. This was a multi-year project in which I played a significant role in putting together the list of machines that we have in the space. There were many options for HFS to say that we couldn’t have a particular type of machine but they trusted my judgment and gave us an opportunity to put together a divers set of machines that will serve many students here at UW.

Share an experience where you failed during your professional journey. How were you able to come back from that experience? What did you learn from that experience?

My first job building houses stopped being viable during the recession around 2009. I had to find a way to reinvent myself. I focused on making sure that I learned the skills necessary to start a new career. This experience showed me that I can reinvent myself if needed. I’m also not afraid to take a leap and try something new. This is why I was able to leave Boeing and come to UW. Most people aren’t willing to take a risk but I felt like it was necessary for me to move on to a new career and I’m very happy that I made that choice.

What activities do you enjoy outside of your career?

I enjoy listening to music and radio. I like reading the newspaper and doing Sudoku. I also like riding my bike and traveling when I have the chance to get away.

By Izzy Wroblewski
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