Zach Jacobs ’19, assistant secretary of education for Virginia, exemplifies the university’s motto Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) by serving the residents of the commonwealth. 

Jacobs works with the General Assembly, university presidents, and higher education liaisons to ensure that Virginia’s university system is top-notch and produces graduates who want to live and work in Virginia.  

“At the end of the day, the entire administration works to make sure our education system is best-in-class, whether that is K-12 or in higher education,” Jacobs said.

Before becoming assistant secretary of education, Jacobs worked as a senior legislative assistant for the U.S. House of Representatives and as a legislative specialist for Virginia Farm Bureau.

The first-generation experience

In high school, Jacobs was involved in Virginia FFA, serving as state president from 2014-15. He showed cattle, sheep, and hogs for family and friends. This exposure to the industry and visiting Virginia Tech with Virginia FFA led him to apply exclusively to Virginia Tech. 

“I always knew that I wanted to go to college and to make it happen, I would have to pay my way,” said Jacobs, who was a first-generation college student. “After I was accepted, I applied for scholarships all the time.”

Some semesters were harder than others. Jacobs had to work to make ends meet. During the semesters he worked as an on-campus Microsoft and Amazon Prime representative, at the Copenhaver Sheep Center, as a waiter, and in paid internships over the summer. 

His resilience paid off.

Jacobs’ jobs and internships not only provided him with invaluable hands-on experiences, but coupled with his continuous search for scholarships, he was able to pay for half of his junior year and all of his senior year. “Everyone has a different path in life, but being able to receive my degree from Virginia Tech is a source of pride,” he said.  

The power of a handwritten note

Jacobs is grateful for all of the opportunities and mentors that helped him along the way.  

There was still one internship he had always dreamed of on Capitol Hill, but because of the cost of housing, he never got to experience it.  Jacobs was determined to fulfill his dream of politics and had his sights set on Washington, D.C., after graduating. 

“I no longer had to pay for college, so I could do the very internship I had always wanted to do and job hunt at the same time,” he said.  

He connected with a mentor from his time with FFA, Matthew Lohr ’95, secretary of agriculture and forestry for Virginia, who was working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture then.  

“Lohr connected me with the right people, and instead of applying for the Capitol Hill internship, I landed a job as a legislative analyst working for the Trump administration and Sonny Perdue, the previous secretary of agriculture for the United States,” Jacobs said.

“Find those connections people have and work with your mentors to reach out,” he said.  

“One of the most meaningful ways I have always shown my gratitude is by sending handwritten thank you notes.” He said this is an underrated touch point in the professional world, but if you can write one, do so. “It goes a long way and people remember that.”  

The university's dedication to improving outcomes for first-generation students today reflects the Virginia Tech Advantage, an institutional commitment to reduce unmet financial need and increase support for Virginia students’ basic needs, career preparation, and transformational learning experiences.

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