CU Boulder political science graduate builds a potent political resume
The age at which any person’s hair begins turning gray is heavily influenced by genetics, but science increasingly suggests that prolonged stress can accelerate the process, sometimes by as much as 10 years.
Anyone who has watched the progression in hair color among U.S. presidents—George W. Bush and Barack Obama are two recent, vivid examples—doesn’t doubt the connection between stress and graying.
Talk to 26-year-old Derek Dash and he’ll tell you that just working for a presidential administration is enough to do the trick.
“I started getting my first gray hairs at the age of 23,” says Dash, who has built an impressive resume since graduating from CU Boulder in 2013, including a year working for the Obama administration. “It’s exhausting. The hours are insane. You don’t have time to eat very well; it’s a lot of coffee and bananas.”
Relatively few political science majors actually go on to work in politics, but in just three years Dash has worked not just for the Obama White House, but also Gov. John Hickenlooper, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and former U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, all of Colorado.
“It’s been really interesting working for all these principals,” Dash says. “They all share a core set of skills.”
Dash grew up in Denver and was a freshman in the inaugural class of the Denver School of Science and Technology, graduating in 2008. Thanks in part to the Denver Scholarship Foundation, he came to CU, where he joined the McNeill Academic Program, a multicultural learning community that supports students’ academic, personal and professional development.
Upon arriving in Boulder, he had a long conversation with a friend on Farrand Field about potential majors. His father’s side of the family had long worked in government and his mother had a career in hospitality.
“Given those two things, I just thought political science made sense. I talked to my advisor, and two weeks after coming to CU I declared the political science major,” he says.
While at CU, Dash held a part-time work-study job on campus and another part-time job as a bartender. In February 2011, he was the subject of a story in Boulder’s Daily Camera newspaper focused on federal Pell Grants. ABC News picked up on the story and he was interviewed on World News Tonight.
“At the end of the interview the producer offered me an internship in Washington,” Dash says.
He later served as a communications intern in Bennet’s Colorado office and worked as an intern for Denver’s CBS 4 News. He was invited to give the keynote address at the graduation ceremony for the Student Academic Success Center in May 2013.
Both during his time on campus and after graduation, Dash has made time to give back to the organizations that had helped him succeed, including serving on professional development panels for the McNeill program and participating on the Alumni Advisory Committee for the Denver Scholarship Foundation.
“I really think it’s important for political science students to remember to give back, to make sure other students at the university have the same opportunities they’ve had. Not only so they know it’s possible, but also as an example of what they can do with their degree,” he says.
As graduation approached, he sent resumes far and wide, but throughout the summer tallied up rejection after rejection. One of the last rejections he received was for an internship at the White House.
“Then, the day the internship started (in September), I got a phone call. ‘Hey, I’m so-and-so, and we had an intern quit on the first day. Can you get here next week?’” Dash says. “I’ve definitely caught some lucky breaks.”
He worked for the White House Department of Scheduling and Advance, which arranged logistics for all the president’s appearances, everything from how he would travel to whom he would meet with and where.
“In Advance, your job is to be where the president is. You are lucky enough to see his speeches in person, hear him articulate policy, and observe the formalities of his meetings,” he says.
Many interns in the Obama White House saw the president up close only once, when he spoke to each class at the end of its tenure. But Dash had two other close encounters, when he was asked to pose for a photo with the president and spoke briefly with the president during a food-bank event during a Thanksgiving trip to Maryland.
His stint as an intern led to a contract job for the Department of Scheduling and Advance. Dash traveled three weeks out of every month to dozens of states over the next nine months. Among the highlights were traveling in a Boeing V-22 Osprey aircraft, which has vertical takeoff and landing capabilities, in Fresno, Calif.
“You sort of pop up and lurch into the air, then it turns into an airplane, then into a helicopter again,” he says.
He also traveled with the president to Tokyo, Japan, where he was on hand for the president’s cultural visit to Meiji Shine. During the visit the president wrote a message on an “ema,” a small wooden plaque, which he placed on a prayer tree and took in a traditional viewing of “yabusame,” or horseback archery.
Your job is to be where the president is. You are lucky enough to see his speeches in person, hear him articulate policy, and observe the formalities of his meetings."
After earning his first gray hairs, Dash decided to join Udall’s re-election campaign as trip director, where he managed a $35,000 budget to implement and help coordinate all aspects of a 3,000-mile bus tour across Colorado.
After Udall lost to U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, Dash took a position as Gov. Hickenlooper’s director of advance, or “wrangler.” He traveled with the governor, keeping him on time for appearances and meetings, making sure he had the necessary briefing materials, and took many of his social media photographs.
“He was the first person I really got to study close up. He is very much a collaborator, having taken lessons from his career as an entrepreneur in the private sector,” Dash says. “He’s also a gifted orator. … People forget in this digital age how important that is.”
In 2015, he joined Senator Bennet’s office to work on outreach and communications, while also joining the re-election campaign as an operations coordinator.
“I had a craving for victory,” he said. “I just wanted to have that ‘W’ on my resume.”
When Bennet is in Colorado, Dash drives him to his meetings and prepares his briefing materials for the next day.
“When Michael is out of town, I do a lot of constituent work,” he says, including handling correspondence, scheduling requests, and attending events on Bennet’s behalf.
That adds up to experience many a more-seasoned veteran wishes they had, but Dash doesn’t plan to rest on his laurels. He plans to apply for an MBA graduate program.
“One thing I’ve taken from working for these four principals is that they all spent time in the private sector, improving themselves, learning how the rest of the world is run,” he says.
To pose an obvious question, does he see himself running for office someday?
“If I’m ever going to be in a place where I could consider that, I know I have a lot of work ahead of me,” he says. “But one thing I’ve learned from all of these principals is that people respect you when you are earnest. They don’t want politically correct answers, or to feel like you’re trying to persuade them, they just want you to be candid with them.”