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‘We can change someone’s life by serving,’ says award-winning student-athlete

In addition to the four chapel services offered each week, Palm Beach Atlantic presents Christival, an annual celebration of faith, worship and learning. In that forum, Ethiopian native Birhanu van der Riet spoke of his journey of faith and challenges he’s faced.

“I was praying that God would lead me to a community that would encourage me and spur me to His love and to follow Him,” he said. “I’m so grateful for the PBA community, and ultimately I’m so grateful that God led me here to this place.”

He came to PBA in 2019, and earned a bachelor’s degree in intercultural studies. He’s now working on his master’s degree in international development. When he leaves with that degree, look for him to immerse himself in serving his new community, but not as an outsider thinking he has all the answers. Instead, expect him to learn from his new neighbors, “working with them to tackle the problems they have.”

Van der Riet has taken that mindset to an underserved community near PBA, and with it, he’s won both hearts and awards.

The first award, the Newman Civic Fellowship, came in 2020, citing van der Riet’s volunteer service with the Rosemary Village after-school program. That program draws many PBA students to serve a low-income community two miles from campus.

The fellowship recognizes and supports “communitycommitted students who are changemakers and public problem-solvers.” At Rosemary Village, it became apparent that description fits van der Riet to a T.

“The biggest thing I’ve observed about Birhanu is his caring spirit and his dedication,” said Joi Cardwell, director of the after-school program. “He comes every day with a smile on his face, mentoring the kids, being a big brother, being a leader.”

“I love the community,” van der Riet said, “and I’ve learned a lot from that place.” He began serving at

Rosemary Village as a freshman in 2019, joining other PBA students in the University’s Workship community service outreach. For his ongoing work at Rosemary Village, in April of this year, the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County and Palm Beach Atlantic University presented van der Riet the Tikkun Olam (repair the world) Young Leader Award. Later that month, van der Riet the athlete (he runs track) received the Clark Boetel Award, which honors student-athletes who represent the University with outstanding attitude, leadership and servant-hood. 

“We can change someone’s life by serving,” van der Riet believes, and he has experienced such change himself. His father died when van der Riet was young, and economic conditions in Ethiopia forced his mother to seek help. An American family now living in Orlando adopted van der Riet and his three siblings. That act of service made it possible for him to become a first-generation college student at PBA. 

He now feels a vocational call to help bring holistic, sustainable help and healing to hurting people and communities. Reflecting back on his own childhood and poverty, he concludes, “If you want to transform a person’s life, it’s not preaching the Gospel only.” 

His graduate work will include an overseas research project, and after he earns his master’s degree, he’d love to return to his homeland and work in holistic development. “But I’m open to everything,” he said. “Wherever God leads me.” 


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