First-Generation College Student Named to Nationwide Leadership Program

March 2020

Campus Compact, a Boston-based nonprofit that offers professional development for promising young leaders, named Birhanu van der Riet to its 2020-21 cohort of Newman Civic Fellows.


Van der Riet ’21, an intercultural studies major, is a first-generation college student from a farming community in Ethiopia.

The Newman Civic Fellowship is a yearlong program for students from Campus Compact member institutions. Fellows are leaders on their campuses who demonstrate a commitment to finding solutions for challenges facing communities locally, nationally, and internationally. Van der Riet is one of 290 students named to the 2020-21 cohort, the largest to date.

Fellows are nominated by their university’s president or chancellor based on their potential for public leadership. President William M. B. Fleming, Jr., nominated van der Riet for his regular involvement in the Rosemary Village after-school program, which serves low-income children two miles from campus.

As part of a “Great Ideas Initiatives” grant from the Children’s Services Council, van der Riet works with singer-songwriter Joi Cardwell to teach youth about mindfulness and to explore art, music and technology as forms of expression. The youth will write, produce and publish an album as a result of the project.

“Birhanu’s leadership in recruiting his peers has been vital to this project,” Fleming wrote in his nomination. “Birhanu’s love for the Rosemary community and his contagious personality have made him a role model for service.”

Van der Riet’s upbringing has inspired him to invite others to serve with him. His Ethiopian parents sought help for their family when severe drought affected their agrarian way of life. An American family adopted him and his siblings when he was 14.

“It takes a village to raise the next generation, just like the village that raised me,” he wrote in his personal statement. “When PBA rallies together to serve the Rosemary Village community, the next generation will be inspired to seek out new possibilities for their lives.”

In the fall, all of the Newman Civic Fellows gather in Boston for a nationwide convention hosted by Campus Compact and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate. The program also includes webinars, leadership development with a local mentor and networking with other engaged student leaders.

Melody Bohannan, a sophomore biblical studies major, is in the 2019-20 class of Newman Civic Fellows. The University nominated Bohannan for leading volunteers in an English as a Second Language program for parents at Belvedere Elementary School. She is also vice president of advocacy for PBA’s International Justice Mission chapter.

Judson Crawford ’19 completed the fellowship last year. Tabernacle Church recognized him for his dedication to the Rosemary Village after-school program. He has since graduated from the St. Johns River State College Criminal Justice Academy and now works for the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office.

Photo: Birhanu van der Riet poses for a photo on campus. Van der Riet '21 is an intercultural studies major who has been an instrumental volunteer at the Rosemary Village after-school program. He was named to the 2020-21 cohort of Newman Civic Fellows.

< Show All Articles