Growing up in Martinsville, Virginia, part of the state’s economically distressed Southside region, Derrick Ziglar knew a college education wasn’t a given. The son of a single mother who sometimes worked two or three jobs to keep food on the table and a roof over her family’s head, Ziglar was mowing lawns by age 12 and doing other odd jobs to keep the family afloat.
In high school, he played football, and as graduation neared, he made an uncommon choice. He turned down the chance to attend a historically Black institution and enrolled instead at Virginia Military Institute, a small, public college in western Virginia where cadets wear uniforms, adhere to a strict honor code, and are required to take eight semesters of military training through ROTC.
Today, less than 10 years after his 2015 graduation from VMI, Ziglar is attempting an economic renaissance in his hometown. He’s buying buildings and making plans to market them to businesses—an uphill battle in a community of 14,000 where well-paying factory jobs disappeared by the thousands in the 1990s and the population has been declining for years.
Ask Ziglar, and he will tell you: It would have been harder and taken longer if he’d attended another school. “I would have never thought that I’d be where I am today, and the reason for that is VMI,” he stated.
Like many students from low-income communities, Ziglar struggled at first in college. Academics were challenging, but he knew the only way through was forward.
“There were a lot of times, honestly, that I wanted to give up and quit, but my mom wouldn’t let me,” he noted. After his first year at VMI, things got better, and he began to focus on a part of the VMI experience that’s an unseen lifeblood binding generations of graduates: The alumni network.
“By going to VMI, it connected me to the right people,” Ziglar commented. “I had certain experiences that helped me grow and mature significantly faster than some of my peers did at other schools.”
After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in biology, Ziglar commissioned into the U.S. Army Reserve and took a job with Target Corp. in operations management. At the same time, he helped his mother, who was still struggling economically. Ziglar bought a house and invited his mother to live with him while she returned to school and finished her college degree. Today, with a better job, she’s on a much more secure financial footing than she was during Ziglar’s youth.
“That was my way of saying thank you and helping her continue to flourish as she gets older in life versus me just focusing on how I can make the most money,” Ziglar noted. “I don’t think I did anything special, per se. It was just something that was the right thing to do.”
A similar mindset prevails when it comes to Ziglar’s hometown. “I just want to see Martinsville grow in the right direction,” he said. “The city and a lot of entrepreneurs, a lot of investors are really focused on how we take the properties that are in the city and create good uses for them, create amenities for the people here.”
All of this is challenging, of course. Roadblocks and red tape abound, and a 30-year-old real estate developer doesn’t have the capital or connections an older individual might. None of this fazes Ziglar, however. VMI teaches a can-do spirit and a push-past-adversity ethos not often found at other schools.
“It’s one of those things [where], if I can make it through that, I can make it through anything,” he stated. “VMI has helped significantly in navigating obstacles when things seem to be falling aside, and I need to be able to stay calm and make great decisions in the moment.”
Editor’s Note: A version of this article was posted on richmond.com.
Christian Heilman Director of Digital Content
The director of digital content is responsible for creating original video and multimedia materials, as well as developing and editing web and digital content. The director is responsible for platform coordination and troubleshooting, to include the VMI Alumni Agencies’ primary websites, digital newsletter and other digital platforms.
Mary Price Development Writer/Communications Specialist
The development writer plays a key role in producing advancement communications. This role imagines, creates, and produces a variety of written communication to inspire donors to make gifts benefiting VMI. Utilizing journalistic features and storytelling, the development writer will produce content for areas such as Annual Giving, stewardship, and gift planning.