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Trading ND cold for Wyoming warmth

Philip Parnell has taken what he learned at UND and NDSCS to his job at Western Wyoming Community College

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Trading ND cold for Wyoming warmth

Philip Parnell takes a selfie with Tucker Liebee at Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs, Wyo.

It’s no exaggeration to say Philip Parnell is a professional academic in a busy career.

The 57-year-old works at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs, Wyoming, as vice president for student success services of a two-year college with around 3,400 students.

He’s responsible for all the programs that involve students – giving them an opportunity to succeed. He is also in charge of all six athletic programs and oversees a staff between 125-130 people.

He oversees counseling, mental health counseling, retention efforts, enrollment, registration and financial aid, student life on campus, the children’s center, security protective services division and all of the school’s athletics, including the athletic director and six coaches.

“I’ve been in this business over 20 years and I just had my best semester yet,” Parnell said. “Everything went so smoothly. We had no issues with students on campus.”

Life on a two-year college is filled with campus life, transitioning from high school to beginning stages of adulthood.

Son of a teacher becomes a teacher himself

Parnell’s life has been a bit of a revolving door before his move to Wyoming. He was the son of a teacher and he taught English for three years in Arkansas. At age 25 Parnell decided to join the military.

“I waited until the last possible moment,” he said with a laugh. “I went to the recruiting office in Memphis and a year later I launched a MinuteMan missile in California. That was pretty cool. I shot a missile into the Pacific Ocean about 4,000 miles away.”

He and his wife moved their family to North Dakota from Arkansas after he joined the U.S. Air Force and liked North Dakota so much they stayed. He started as a 2nd Lt. in Grand Forks and worked his way up to Captain. After retiring from the military, he looked for a job to keep his family in Grand Forks and found one at UND. At the University of North Dakota he began his career as the night dispatcher at the physical plant communications desk where he monitored fire and elevator alarms, HVAC systems and emergency calls. He realized he didn’t want to work nights forever and began looking for another job. Parnell earned his master’s degree and took a job as the director of admissions and advising for the college of education. He became assistant registrar and then an associate registrar. Due to his work with transfer student issues, the state of North Dakota asked Parnell to put together a project for common course numbering. Following that, he oversaw the enrollment management functions for the division of online and distance education where he supervised recruitment, marketing and academic affairs.

This is what brought him full circle to Wyoming. It’s no understatement to say Parnell loves what he does. He has a wall of pictures showing candid shots of students on campus. 

“Did I make mistakes along the way, of course. But the bottom line is I always wanted to be in the role I’m in now. I’m having a blast,” he said.

When he first began working at UND President Charles Kupchella put him in a leadership program. This acknowledgement to his abilities provided him with additional training from university leaders. Once a month he met with someone new, listened to their stories and ideas of what makes a good leader. One such visit set him in front of Dr. Boyd, a man who was vice president of student services. Parnell had one question for man who would become his mentor.

“Can you help me do that?”

Boyd mentored Parnell for many years, starting him on this career path. The two remain close and continue talking occasionally.

His first job in student services was at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton as the associate vice president for academic and student affairs. He worked under the tutelage of Harvey Link, vice president of academic affairs. In Wahpeton, Parnell was in charge of all student programs. After four years, Parnell traded in his Wildcat shoes to become a Western State Mustang. He has learned so much in each position and credits all of his mentors in preparing him for the role he now leads at Western State.

His time at Grand Forks and Wahpeton taught him the importance of students. His mission, one he believes in wholeheartedly, is to develop the young people attending the college.

Trading in a North Dakota winter for a high desert warmth

He and his wife Joann have three children. Their oldest is a son who remained in North Dakota. The other two are daughters, one who joined her father at Western State in the spring of 2017 as a freshman.

The cold of a North Dakota winter has been traded for a much milder winter in the high desert of Wyoming. Parnell said it only snows between 8-10 inches of snow each year and because the climate is so dry, it evaporates quickly.

“It’s as high as 110 degrees in the summer and never gets much colder than 32 in the winter,” he said. 

The cold of the northern state actually brought a fond memory. When he and JoAnn first moved to Grand Fork is parents worried about the cold temperatures. They experienced their first blizzard in 1986 and his parents called, thinking the couple would die.

“Are your furnaces going?” His parents questioned.

Many northern residents have block heaters for their vehicles during the cold of winter. The first time they drove back to Arkansas with a cord hanging out the front, his mom asked, “You bought an electric car?”

As the son of a teacher, Parnell grew up in an educational environment. His academic career has put him in front of the classroom, working on behalf of students and now, an integral portion of the two-year college.

His first year at Western State has been challenging, but filled with personal and professional achievement.

He is one man who is living the dream.

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