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Oh, The Places You Can Go: Meet Derek Lewis ‘97 (Alumni Interview)*

Derek Lewis holding his son and standing next to his wife.

On today’s blog, Derek Lewis, the Executive Director of Greenville First Steps and 1997 alum, shares how his English major made him “a highly qualified grant writer, fundraiser, and policymaker.”

What are you doing now? What paths led you to this point? 

I am the Executive Director of Greenville First Steps in Greenville, SC. Greenville First Steps is a non-profit that funds programs to help children enter school on track and ready to succeed. Greenville First Steps is a $2.2 million organization that provides financial support for services including parenting programs, early literacy efforts, improved access to quality childcare, and advocacy work for investments in early childhood evidenced-based strategies. 

I also serve as an elected member of the Greenville County School Board of Trustees. Greenville School District is the 45th largest school district in the nation, with nearly 77,000 students. 

When I graduated from Georgia Southern, I took a summer off to work as a counselor at YMCA Camp Greenville, a residential summer camp. I fell in love with camping, and I ended up staying on full-time at the YMCA for over a decade. I realized that non-profit and advocacy work were my passions; I am so excited to have the responsibilities of running this organization and serving on the school board.

Did you major or minor in English? How did your English education shape you?
I was a student in the Bell Honors Program and majored in English. My confidence as a communicator and persuasive writer were strengthened through my time at Georgia Southern, and my success as a grant writer and policymaker are attributed to my college experiences. Since 2000, I have used my writing skills as a grant writer (and now grantmaker) and have helped my organizations earn over $25 million in grants.

I am currently working with members of the SC Legislature to craft and revise education policy, ensuring children and families for generations to come will receive quality public school and pre-school educational experiences.  

What advice would you give to current English students or students considering English as a major or minor?

I never appreciated what opportunities were ahead for me as an English major. I had originally planned to attend film school as a screenwriter, and I later learned that my skills in persuasive writing, and storytelling, made me a highly qualified grant writer, fundraiser, and policymaker. As a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE), I am a member of a small group of nationally recognized fund-raisers who daily use our story-telling experience to improve the lives of children and families.

Can you tell us what’s on your bookshelf? Or, if you’d like, tell us about a book you read–recently or not-so-recently–that you would call a “favorite.” 

At Georgia Southern, I became hooked on Flannery O’Connor (“Wise Blood”) and Shirley Jackson (“Haunting of Hill House”) and regularly return to their gothic prose. They are two of my favorite writers. Both are incredibly gifted storytellers who paint incredibly vivid pictures of the unusual and supernatural world that surrounds us. 

Is there anything else you would like to share that we haven’t asked?

When I was a junior at Georgia Southern, I took the Spring semester off and went to Walt Disney World for the college program. As an intern, I was a ride operator and had the opportunity to meet some of the most fascinating people, who have made a career working for Mickey Mouse. The Imagineer program is always looking for screenwriters, communications experts to help develop content. My one regret during this experience is that I rushed back to school for my senior year without exploring ways to return to Disney as a full-time cast member after graduation.

We’re so grateful to Derek for joining us today! What an amazing career trajectory.

Are you an alum with an English degree? Would you like to be featured on our blog for the 2020-2021 academic year? Email us! We would love to hear from you!


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