A tale of two graduates

by Catalina Myers  |   

Michael Swalling and his son Chase Swalling both graduated from UAA in fall 2018. Michael earned his M.S. in engineering management and Chase earned his B.S. in construction management. (Photo by James Evans / UAA)
Michael Swalling and his son Chase Swalling both graduated from UAA in fall 2018. Michael earned his M.S. in engineering management and Chase earned his B.S. in construction management. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

It's Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018, and graduates in long black robes and mortarboards with green and gold tassels fill the Alaska Airlines Center (AAC) for fall commencement. In the College of Engineering (CoEng) section, Mike Swalling, M.A.'18 Engineering Management, peeks over the rows of heads to see if he can catch a glimpse of his son, Chase Swalling, B.S. '18 Construction Management, three or four rows ahead. Both father and son are sharing a momentous occasion, with Mike completing his master's degree and Chase earning his bachelor's degree.

Hometown U

Swalling is a name that has been in Alaska since 1947, when Mike's father - Chase's grandfather — started Swalling Construction Company, a commercial construction company specializing in buildings, bridges, docks, roadways and other types of infrastructure projects. The company, like many family-operated businesses, was handed down from father to son, and Mike took it over in 1972, after graduating with a civil engineering degree from Santa Clara University in California. For Mike, life took its usual meandering turns — he married, had children of his own and was busy filling his days running a business and being a father, which left little to no time to go back to school.

"It was just one of those things that hangs in the back of your mind — you started it; you really ought to finish," said Mike of wanting to finish his master's degree all these years later. "You know, your mother tells you, 'Finish what you start.'" His son Chase laughs but smiles, as he knows the hard work his dad put into going back to school.

For Chase, his path to higher education was not your typical graduate from high school and jump into a college degree program. He'd spent his childhood growing up in Alaska's construction industry, watching his dad and grandfather run the family business. And it wasn't until his late 20s that he finally felt the need to earn his degree. For him it was more about the time. Was this investment going to be worth the effort? Chase concluded yes, enrolling in UAA's Construction Management (CM) program.

"There was this conflict of, 'Do I need to do this?" said Chase of worrying that his degree would be more of a "filtering device." He explained in the last decade there's been an industry shift and construction companies often look for applicants that have a university degree, or use it as a factor when deciding on company promotions. Chase didn't want to be left out of the running for either.

"School was almost like an extension of work, especially if you've been in the industry for a while — it's kind of like training," said Chase. "I mean, you're constantly receiving training that's kind of like going to school, so I just kind of looked at this like I'm going to receive in-depth training, but it will lead to my degree."

Two programs, one goal

Chase said he had a great experience going to school. His professors were industry insiders and had worked construction in Alaska for years before coming to teach at UAA, and passed on their invaluable knowledge to him and his classmates. He participated in the Associated Schools in Construction competition, captaining a team that took first place.

"Being a part of that you get to branch out a little bit and that was an opportunity to see other areas of construction that I wasn't as familiar with, but still played a part in the type of projects that Swalling did," said Chase. He worked for a smaller construction firm outside of Swalling for a while until the president of Davis Constructors & Engineers Inc. took an interest in Chase. Before graduation, he was hired to the team. "Luke [Blomfield], who is now the president of Davis, who's also involved in the CM program at UAA, had taken an interest in me in his work through the program and recruited me."

Mike was equally enthusiastic about his degree program as well, although he said that things had drastically changed since the last time he was in school.

"The courses that I took didn't even exist when I started — program management, quality control and another management course — everything has advanced," said Mike. He said he had a few technology hurdles to get over, but his classmates were patient and his professors inspired him to push through despite the late nights.

Pomp and circumstance

For Mike and Chase, their programs and daily lives kept them busy. Mike was still working at the family business, although now named Swalling General LLC, the successor company run by his nephew and his two partners. Chase was newly married, with a brand new baby, and it was an incredibly busy time for father and son; they didn't get to talk too much about school.

"We actually didn't talk about school that much — a little towards the end, he gave me some technical help — I was having some computer issues," said Mike.

Luckily for both Mike and Chase, they had supportive spouses and family. There wasn't a lot of free time outside of work and school, but the two agree in the end, all the homework, projects and stress of final exams was worth it to be on the floor of the AAC, knowing that they weren't that far away from each other and experiencing the same big moment.

"You just kind of look at the light at the end of the tunnel, of the goal that you're working towards," said Chase.

Mike added with a big smile, "It was a big year — it was a big year for everybody!"

Written by Catalina Myers, UAA Office of University Advancement

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