Prof-iles: Sociology professor challenged his horizons and was the first in his family to attend college

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If you had asked a high-school aged Chad Farrell what his future looked like, it probably involved a career at a factory and a life in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. But instead of following his parent’s footsteps in blue collar occupations, Farrell found himself not just with a college degree, but a Ph.D. in sociology. As a first generation college student, Farrell has now made university his career by becoming a UAA professor and the Chair of the Department of Sociology.

Farrell could have led a very different life if it wasn’t for some friends of his who pressured him into attending college together at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

“I think that’s a big issue with students: what are your horizons,” Farrell said. “I think my parents wanted me to [go to college], but they didn’t necessarily know how to get me there because they hadn’t gone through the experience themselves. I think a lot of first generation students have similar experiences, where their parents may have aspirations for them, but it’s difficult finding your way through that whole process. I think I had limited horizons for myself because I didn’t really have a sense of what’s possible.”

Part of why college wasn’t on Farrell’s radar was because he describes his high school self as ‘lost’ and that it really took his experiences in college to help him see different possibilities for his future. With a dad who worked at a factory and a mom who worked as a secretary, Farrell saw his horizon limited to blue collar occupations.

“I grew up in a working-class family, and I identified with that. I had pride that my parents worked hard,” Farrell said. “I kind of embraced the idea of working hard, playing hard, that rough sort of background.”

His desire to work hard helped him get his B.A. in sociology, and with the encouragement of some good professors, he applied to graduate school at Pennsylvania State University. His preliminary visit to Penn State was Farrell’s first time on a plane, but certainly not his last. With an M.A. in sociology, Farrell was able to teach on base in Japan after his wife, who was in the Air Force, was stationed there.

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Farrell grew up in a place he says is not known for being that diverse, but Farrell himself has gained some national recognition for his work on diversity and urban inequality. The research that showed that Anchorage had some of the most diverse schools in the nation, was actually conducted by Farrell, along with research assessing the changing racial and ethnic contours of American society.

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“There have been a couple cases where students have actually cited my research back to me. ‘Dr. Farrell, do you know we have some of the most diverse schools?’ Which is great, I love it,” Farrell said. “Usually I just say, ‘Yeah, I have heard that.’”

The project Farrell is working on is research done in conjunction with people from Cornell and Penn State, and it was funded by a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health. Going into the research, Farrell didn’t expect his work to become so popular.

“I never anticipated that this would catch fire like [it did],” Farrell said. “When you’re doing an analysis of tens of thousands of communities or thousands of communities and tens of thousands of neighborhoods, over multiple decades, there’s a tendency to get lost in the data a little bit. I think that’s why some of this took me by surprise, plus as a demographer, it wasn’t particularly shocking to me that there’s a lot of diversity here. I just never anticipated that it would be such a big deal to other people.”

His interest in residential segregation and diversity began in his hometown of Sheboygan, because he saw how Hmong populations, refugees from the Vietnam War, were treated differently. At the time, Farrell didn’t know what sociology was, but he still asked questions about the inequality he saw.

“[Sheboygan’s] not a very diverse place,” Farrell said. “When I was growing up, we saw a growing Hmong population in our community, and that’s actually common in Wisconsin… Some of those experiences earlier on, and some of the struggles I saw with my Hmong classmates… started getting me to ask questions of why? Why are people treating this group so poorly? Those were the first inklings of not only diversity but inequality and discrimination. I think that helped inform some of my pursuits later on when I got into an academic career.”

Before going to college, Farrell said he didn’t imagine he would do much beyond Sheboygan. But ever since he enrolled, his horizons have expanded from his hometown to the east coast, to Japan and now to Anchorage. His working class upbringing may have made him less confident in pursuing academia early in life, but the work ethic that upbringing instilled in him, helped him become Chair of his department, a member of the Board of Directors for the Alaska Institute for Justice, and a commonly referenced researcher. For the future, Farrell aims to retain a high-quality department despite the difficult fiscal challenges the state and the university currently face.