Patrick Rhode, U.S. vice president of corporate affairs for the global infrastructure firm, Cintra, returned to his alma mater with the idea of sharing lessons learned from his career, which spans the White House and high profile senior executive roles in government and private industry.
He returned home to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock on April 12 to serve as the keynote speaker of the School of Mass Communication Awards Ceremony, but was surprised with the Distinguished Alumni Award from the School of Mass Communication. Arkansas state officials also recognized Rhode with a Certificate of Recognition from Gov. Asa Hutchinson and a Capitol Citation from Secretary of State Mark Martin.
His notable career has included positions as special assistant to President George W. Bush, chief of staff for two FEMA administrations within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, associate administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, and senior advisor to NASA.
During his visit to UA Little Rock, members of Dr. Iveta Imre’s Multimedia Reporting Class Nick Popowitch and Kamroon Woods interviewed Rhode for a feature that will appear on LR Angle. Rhode also spoke with students in Dr. Sonny Rhodes’ Careers in Mass Media class and did an interview with KUAR.
Rhode credits UA Little Rock as the place where he learned to take chances that led to unexpected opportunities.
“UA Little Rock is very special to me, because it is the place I really learned to get out of my comfort zone,” he said. “My story is not a very conventional one. I did not have it all figured out, far from it. I think it is okay not to know exactly what you want to do.”
Early in his career, Rhode moved to Austin, Texas, to be with his fiancé. Since he was unable to immediately find a position in broadcast journalism, he became a spokesman for a state agency and soon met someone who would be instrumental in his career.
“Within weeks of my new job, public confidence in that agency would be tested,” he said. “I would be introduced to members of the staff of a young Governor Bush. This is the time where I met people that I never expected to meet. This taught me to do the best in any situation that comes before you because you never know who may be there and who may be helpful to you in the future.”
Despite initial personal thoughts that he was too young and inexperienced to take the job, Rhode served as deputy director of National Advance Operations for Bush’s successful presidential campaign in 2000, which led to several high-profile government positions.
“Don’t limit yourself by how you see your capabilities, because there are people around you who may see more for you than you see for yourself,” he said. “That’s the lesson I learned when I was asked to help run operations for President Bush’s campaign.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, Rhode’s life took on another drastic change. When the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was created in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, Rhode was named chief of staff for two FEMA administrations within the department responsible for more than 100 Presidential Disaster and Emergency Declarations over his years. The department assisted more than 1 million Americans during his tenure.
“We looked out the window and saw smoke coming from the direction of the Pentagon,” Rhode said. “There is no question that moment changed my life. The country was forever changed that day. The lesson for me is that planning is important, but life doesn’t care about our perfect plans. Life will change in ways we have never expected.”
When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Rhode learned that, sometimes, doing your job is all you can do in an impossible situation.
“The early pictures of disaster victims in New Orleans seemingly forgotten by their country were all around. As chief of staff, part of my role is to encourage everyone to do their jobs and not let the outside pressure get to us. The criticism and struggle made much of the early headlines, but that was not the whole story,” he said. “The often untold story is what happened next when the country came together, resulting in the emergency evacuation of tens of thousands of people to safety in several states, something the likes of which had not been attempted much less accomplished at that time in the modern history of the country.”
Throughout Rhode’s career, completing his bachelor’s degree in mass communication from UA Little Rock is a goal he never forgot. He left UA Little Rock in 1993, just three credit hours short of graduation, to pursue a career as a television reporter for the CBS affiliate in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. With the help of mass communication faculty, Rhode proudly completed his degree in 2016.
“I realized that so many of my stories were about UA Little Rock,” he said. “When she asked about my education, I had to explain to my daughter that I left college three credit hours short of a college degree. I was inspired to come back, and the university welcomed me back with open arms. The lesson I learned is to remember what is important and that you are never too old to come back.”