The tall former Marine had a forceful message for the high school students seated around in the lecture hall.
Leadership “is not something you are born with or without,” Dennis Derr told them. “It’s a skill that can be developed over time.”
Derr should know. He spent years leading infantrymen in Iraq and Afghanistan during the conflicts in those countries, including the Battle of Marja in Afghanistan. He retired from the military in 2012 after eight years, and was awarded a Bronze Star with “Combat V” for heroism and courageous, lifesaving action under fire in 2010. The citation noted that he traveled more than 5,000 miles during that deployment and led 200 combat patrols. He was also awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received in combat.
The high schoolers in the audience were partway through a new weeklong summer camp that launched June 18. The Siegfried Youth Leadership Program Economics Summer Camp teaches select students, and graduates headed to college, lessons in economics and effective leadership, in partnership with the Center for Economic Education and Entrepreneurship (CEEE) at the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.
The Siegfried Group has a strong partnership with Lerner and CEEE, running a number of other leadership focused programs throughout the year. A gift from Rob and Kathy Siegfried covered costs of the camp for the students, selected from participants in some of those earlier events.
“We want to help develop leaders who have the right economic way of thinking when it comes to decision-making,” Carlos Asarta, director of CEEE, said. He said the first camp was going really well, and the students were energetic and quickly bonded.
The plan is to hold the camp once a year for several years, with the potential of continuing it indefinitely.
CEEE plans to hold the summer camp annually. With continued funding and successful outcomes, the hope is to permanently incorporate it into the center’s other offerings for students.
“We take their leadership skills to the next level, so that they can transform themselves into better individual leaders, enrich their lives, and inspire positive change in their communities,” Asarta said.
The students heard from a variety of Lerner professors and other guest speakers about concepts like supply and demand, scarcity, opportunity cost, competitive markets, business structures, entrepreneurship and more. They also found out more about the economics major at Lerner, and got leadership training from Derr and from representatives of the Siegfried Group.
In their downtime, the teens had a chance to socialize with each other through activities like escape rooms, a movie and a Blue Rocks game.
Markee Elias, about to start his senior year at Mount Pleasant High School, said the camp had been “fun and super informative.” Elias had taken an economics class in his freshman year, but said he picked up a lot of new information at the camp — a history buff, he especially enjoyed the historical background.
He hoped to take away not only knowledge on making better economic decisions, but how to guide other people to sound decisions as well.
That kind of leadership was the focus of Derr’s session, which took place later in the week. He joked about his tough time slot: Just after lunch and the last session of the day.
As a combat seasoned Marine, he’d seen graver challenges, and he met this one head on, holding a conversation instead of a simple lecture, sharing battle experiences, and touching on life situations that everyone could relate to.
He kept things light. “We only got like 95 more slides to go,” he said at one point. The teens stayed with him and quickly weighed in with their thoughts when asked.
The former staff sergeant may seem an unlikely change of pace from college professor fare. Now working as a maintenance manager at UD, Derr has developed resilience training programs for several Blue Hen sports teams including softball, field hockey and soon, women’s basketball. It was a connection that grew out of the Veterans and College Athletes Together program, which he now leads. Derr met CEEE’s Asarta at a student-athlete campus event, and Asarta invited him to teach in the camp.
“He is a true American hero,” Asarta told the students.
At age 42, Derr’s youthful face is framed by graying hair. “It’s not like a game where you can just hit the reset button. People die over there,” he said in an interview before his presentation. “And they did. When I was in Afghanistan, I was a platoon commander in charge of 20 Marines, and every Marine was wounded at least one time.”
He spoke to the teens on three key points: “What myself and my Marines went through, for me to stand here today and have an opportunity to talk to you all, I would have never been here if I hadn’t learned about leadership, confidence, and resiliency.”
Not just highlighting successes, Derr admitted to plenty of mistakes. At one point during his service, he said, “I was so consumed in my leadership position that we needed to be perfect in every single thing … I had lost the empathy with my Marines.”
Derr drew a strong contrast between good and bad leaders. Bad ones, he said, demand respect, instill fear, turn teammates against each other, think they know everything and don’t communicate well.
Good leaders, on the other hand, set a good example, listen to team members and consider their ideas, create a positive environment and recognize team achievements.
“I just want you to know that every single one of you can be a leader in here, and you probably don’t realize it but you already are at some level,” Derr said.
Incoming senior Nayla Caraballo of Smyrna High School said she was initially more excited about the leadership training than the economics portion of the week, saying the latter isn’t her strength. But the presentations “gave me a good perspective on other people’s way of thinking and how I should be thinking about certain aspects. So I was like, OK, it’s not just math and graphing and more stuff like that, it’s actually a different way of looking at things.”
Natalee Lynam, an incoming 10th grader at Hodgson Vocational Technical High School, on the other hand, was more drawn to the economics side. She hopes to open her own business someday and at camp she wanted to pick up ideas on growing a business and leading it in a beneficial way.
Students praised the fresh perspectives they’d encountered, including ideas that got them out of their comfort zone.
“The economics part, I was like ‘OK, that’s just money, that’ll be easy,” said Gabriella Charles, going into 10th grade at Smyrna High School. In her time at camp, she realized there was more to the discipline than that. “It gives me a whole new perspective.”
“Carlos (Asarta) always pulls cool things together for teachers and for kids,” said Patti Pyle, a social studies teacher at Howard High School, who stopped by the camp for a visit. “… He definitely wants to make economics more real for everyone, so you see the connections, and that’s what I appreciate.”