The power of community

by Cathy Sandeen, UAA Chancellor  |   

UAA Chancellor Cathy Sandeen helps celebrate Arbor Day on campus. (Photo by JamesEvans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

 Though I prepared in advance of moving to the state, my real education about Alaska began on November 30, 2018 with a 7.1 magnitude earthquake centered just north of Anchorage. As a native Californian, I was no stranger to serious earthquakes, but what struck me on that day and the days that followed was the reaction of this community to a major disaster.

There was no run on supplies. There was no road rage, even among those who sat on the Glenn Highway for three hours trying to get back to their homes in Eagle River or the Valley. Major road damage was repaired within 72 hours. Closer to home, UAA’s facilities staff put their own home repairs — and worries — on hold while they focused on getting the Anchorage campus back up and running in only five days. It was then, with my own eyes, that I witnessed the greatest strength of this state: Alaskans’ natural propensity to band together in times of crisis and a strong commitment outside of self.

The strength of community, connections and collective action remained a solid theme during my time as chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage. It turned out the earthquake was only the beginning of a chain of challenges. The spring and summer of 2019 brought massive reductions to our base budget from the state, board votes for and against financial exigency and system plans to merge all three universities under a single accreditation, which were eventually abandoned but still led to faculty and staff turnover and enrollment declines as the public reacted to a lengthy period of uncertainty. Fast forward to 2020 and the challenges continue, from our response to a global pandemic and major changes to how we work, teach and learn to difficult and painful decisions about academic and athletic program discontinuations.

I would not wish those years on anyone, but as a community, UAA emerged stronger. We held our heads high. In fact, our identity was forged as Alaska’s largest open-access, urban-metropolitan and connected university. UAA, at all its campuses, represents a community of Alaskans who face challenges head-on and work together to fulfill the important mission of preparing the workforce and the next generation of leaders for this diverse and dynamic state. This commitment has not gone unnoticed. Enrollment is holding steady, and we continue to graduate close to 2,500 students per year with degrees and certificates in high-demand areas like engineering, health care, applied science and business management. Most recently, UAA’s contribution to the state’s COVID-19 response is second to none. 

We would not have achieved this turnaround without the active engagement of the many organizations and communities connected to UAA; our alumni (60,000 strong), business leaders who serve on various advisory boards, school districts, donors, nonprofit organizations, employers of our graduates and numerous volunteers — all of whom boldly support and advocate for the university. I did not need to ask for help. It is something Alaskans naturally do in times of need.

The lessons I learned and witnessed about the power of community will stay with me as I move onto my next challenge and beyond. I believe I am leaving UAA in a strong and stable position, ready and willing to serve and innovate. I am enormously grateful for everything I have learned in Alaska and for the many relationships I have built that I hope will continue. Rest assured I will always look back proudly and fondly on my years as a Seawolf and an Alaskan. This amazing state will hold a special place in my heart forever.

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