Opinions

OPINION: Providing a sense of belonging for Anchorage university students

Coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic, UAA campus

Recently, I learned of two powerful stories from University of Alaska Anchorage students who shared the critical role faculty have played in their academic lives. Before entering UAA, these students overcame unique challenges. Once enrolled, it was the faculty who helped them realize their potential.

Before Greg enrolled at UAA, he served three combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. After his service, he experienced a dark period when he considered ending his life. “I’ve been there. I’ve been to the edge. Luckily, I had things that kept me living my life and one of them was education,” he said.

Now Greg is pursuing a master’s degree in project management. He credits LuAnn Piccard, associate professor and chair of UAA’s Project Management Department, for making him feel like he belonged. “This is what I had been looking for from UAA — someone to bring me in and allow me to fit in and say, ‘We want you to be a part of our program,’” Greg told me.

For Greg’s capstone project, he’s creating resource fairs around the state for veterans to find services and opportunities. Ultimately, his goal is to stop veteran suicide. He plans to graduate next year.

Christina, an undergraduate pursuing a sociology degree, is graduating this spring. She’s a first-generation student whose family didn’t trust the education system. Her grandmother, who was part of Oklahoma’s Muscogee Creek Nation, had a difficult time in school. “Everyone in my family grew up with the knowledge that it wasn’t a safe place to be.”

Christina dropped out of high school and eventually completed the GED when she was nearly 30 years old. She started her studies at UAA and felt empowered by sociology professor Nelta Edwards. “She has absolutely been my advocate,” Christina said.

Nelta encouraged her to present her research at a sociology conference in Sacramento this spring and was one of several professors who urged her to apply for the prestigious Beinecke Scholarship, which she won. “Nelta has been amazing and has pushed me to do things I didn’t think I could do, and it’s definitely introduced me to what I am capable of.”

ADVERTISEMENT

After graduating, Christina plans to pursue a master’s degree — and ultimately a Ph.D. Her recent research focuses on the role America’s education system has played in Indigenous peoples’ lives in the past and today. “I really wish my grandma was around to see me graduate,” she said.

I joined UAA as chancellor just about one year ago and since then, one of the great honors of this job has been hearing from students. These stories of great hope and promise should be celebrated, along with the people — including our skilled faculty — who helped them transform their futures. As we enter graduation season, it’s stories like these that lift me up; I hope they do the same for you.

Please join me in celebrating our students’ resilience and desire to create opportunities for others and faculty members like LuAnn Piccard, Nelta Edwards and many others whose dedication to student success is encouraging and important. Congratulations to UAA’s Class of 2022 and future graduates.

Sean Parnell is chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage. He formerly served as governor and lieutenant governor of Alaska.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Sponsored