Clearing pathways of opportunity

by Catalina Myers  |   

Recently, Sean Parnell, former governor of Alaska, stepped into the role of UAA Chancellor. (Photo by James Evans)

 Growing up in the Parnell household, dinner was at six o’clock sharp every night. Dinner together was non-negotiable. Each evening, Sean Parnell would gather with his younger brother, mother and father around the family dinner table to share a meal, their days and often a life lesson. He recalls most nights; his father would pull a news clipping or article of the day centered around a public issue or event for his sons to discuss. At the dinner table in his formative years and into his teens, Parnell learned from his small business owner father and high school teacher mother the value of education and leading one’s life to serve the public good. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, those seemingly routine family dinners laid the framework that launched him into a life of public service.

Parnell’s family moved to Anchorage in 1973 when he was 10. He spent his childhood speeding down the sidewalks of East Anchorage on his bike and diving into Goose Lake’s frigid waters on a “hot” Alaska summer day. No matter the season, nights were spent reading, lost in stacks of library books he'd checked out the Saturday before. His love of history, the people, places and culture that bind a community together are foundational to him and motivates him to serve in careers that help people.

After graduating from East High School in 1980, Parnell attended Pacific Lutheran University, earning his B.B.A. before attending law school and earning his J.D. from the University of Puget Sound (now known as Seattle University School of Law). In his early twenties, when Parnell was at a crossroads in his life and considering law school, his father handed him some of the simplest but perhaps most profound life advice he’s ever received — advice that he’s now passed onto his two daughters and passes on to anyone, regardless of their age.

“You don’t have to choose one major as if it will be the only career path,” said Parnell. “Don’t feel like because you’re making a choice, that you’re stuck with it. Whatever you choose to do, you’ll still have the education and those skills you learned to take with you on your path, and the great work they do.”

He’s carried his father’s advice with him throughout his private and public sector career as an attorney and in politics, from serving in the Alaska House of Representatives to being elected as governor. Although leadership positions were not his end goal, his abilities to collaborate, communicate and work well within a team have helped him successfully lead organizations as small as a private law office to as large as the State of Alaska. 

“As a leader, it’s your job to create opportunities for people,” Parnell said. Growing up, he recognized the critical role UAA played in the community and felt a connection to his hometown university. He hopes to serve as a bridge between the university and Southcentral communities in his role as chancellor. “It’s my role to help shine a light on others.”

Recognizing the rough couple of years the university has experienced with budget issues and now the global pandemic, he hopes he can inspire confidence and connect with students, faculty, staff and alumni. He is looking at UAA’s robust and engaged alumni to help him connect with other university stakeholders to communicate the institution's value to Southcentral Alaska communities and the state.

He is hopeful for the future and feels his core values of collaboration, teamwork and creating opportunities align with the mission of the university’s strategic plan for the next five years. Using UAA 2025 as a framework, he is committed to advancing student success initiatives, promoting a culture of equity and inclusion and breaking down barriers to educational attainment in Alaska.

“Institutions like UAA are safe places in our societies — a place where we can listen, learn, understand each other and talk about our future,” he said. “I plan to do a lot of listening — to faculty, students and the community.”

While Parnell’s fall calendar is filling up quickly with both on- and off-campus events, he anticipates spending time at UAA and the community campuses getting to know students, faculty and staff, beginning this week at Mat-Su College. 

He said if there’s anything he’s learned throughout his career, it’s how to pivot and transition, not just for himself but also for large organizations. He is inspired by the transformative work already being done at UAA, from the world class faculty teaching and conducting cutting-edge research to the opportunities students are afforded through campus life, community partnerships and undergraduate research. He hopes that his contribution will help lead UAA to attain its vision as a university of distinction. Parnell is committed to working with leadership both within the university and in the community to ensure that UAA is always a place where students can learn and master the skills needed to define and create their own future. 

“People come to universities to make their lives better,” Parnell said. “UAA is a place where people’s lives can change. It’s a place where people can grow, learn and create a path for themselves.”

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