It’s been well more than two decades since Philip Parnell concluded his career in the United States Air Force, where he served as a missile launch officer, a flight commander, and a staff officer at a missile site that, years later, would become the Ronald Reagan Minuteman State Historic Site. But Parnell’s sense of duty and purpose carried over to his next career in higher education, and it forms the basis of a philosophy that he brings to his role as Western’s new Vice President for Student Success Services.
“My motto is: The mission comes first,” Parnell said. “The Air Force taught me that, and I think it’s just as true in my current role. The mission comes first, and in higher education the mission is the students.
“I tell my employees and co-workers that my number-one philosophy is that the students come first, but our people come a very close second,” he continued. “That’s really the way it has to work, because if the people aren’t getting what they need, then they can’t help the students. But the students have to come first. That’s our mission. That is why we’re here.”
Parnell, who arrived on campus during the summer, served in the USAF in the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile career field. Early on he put in for assignment to F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne. He was sent to North Dakota, instead, and he remained there for three decades, serving both in the military and in higher education.
Parnell previously spent four years as associate vice president for student services and academics at the North Dakota State College of Science, also a two-year institution; prior to that, he worked for the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education and for the University of North Dakota. But Parnell said his heart is in the work being performed at two-year colleges.
“I realized that a community college is where I wanted to be from now on,” he said. “The difference between the community college and the university was incredible. The university was a great place to work, but they’re as much about research as they are about teaching, and I’ve always been more about teaching. I just think the students come first.”
Though he enjoyed his academic responsibilities at NDSCS, Parnell said he’s looking forward to focusing more exclusively on student services at Western.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of time for me to be out and about with the students at my previous institution,” he explained. “But what I could do was make sure I got into the classrooms so I could watch the instruction going on. I made sure I worked with my student leaders – the ambassadors, the RAs, our student government folks. I was with them, and that’s where I had a little bit of time to spend guiding those student leadership groups into helping the rest of the students and the rest of the campus move forward. Here, I’m hoping that since my feet aren’t as much on the academic side, that I’m able to spend more time with the students in some of their events and activities.”
Parnell was born in Texas and grew up in rural Arkansas. He graduated from that state’s Henderson State University with a Bachelor of Science in Education/English and a minor in German, then taught high school English, literature and library science for three years before opting to earn his commission in the U.S. Air Force, before being assigned as a missile launch officer at Grand Forks Air Force Base.
“Twenty years later, I worked to make my launch control facility—then known as Oscar-Zero—into a state historic site. Now the place I worked as a flight commander in the eighties is the top tourist attraction in the state’s park and historic site system,” he said.
Parnell left the military after the birth of his older daughter. His first job outside of the Air Force was as the night dispatcher at the Physical Plant communications desk at the University of North Dakota, where he monitored fire and elevator alarms, HVAC systems and emergency calls.
“I realized I didn’t want to work midnight to 8 a.m. forever… so I applied for a position as a transfer student recruiter with the University of North Dakota. This was my first experience with community colleges—and I loved the experience,” Parnell recalled. “During this time, I started working on my master’s degree. I finished the degree, and took a job as the director of Admissions and Advising for the College of Education. Then I was an Assistant Registrar and then an Associate Registrar. Then, because of my work with transfer student issues, the state of North Dakota asked me to put together a project for common course numbering. Following that, I oversaw the enrollment management functions for the Division of Online and Distance Education, where I supervised recruitment, marketing and academic affairs.”
Parnell and his wife, JoAnn, have three children, including an adult son who’s still in North Dakota and two daughters – Sara, who will be attending Western in Spring 2017, and Emily, who is a high school student. He brought them to Rock Springs before accepting the position and said his family loved Sweetwater County.
“We lived in a town of 8,000, and that counted the students,” Parnell said. “So, you’re talking about a town of 5,000. Rock Springs is bigger and we’re enjoying having a few more restaurant choices than we did before.
“The first weekend we were here, we went to Flaming Gorge, and I was convinced we were going to love it here. I was sold at that point. And the next weekend we went north to Green River Lakes Recreation Area, and I was sold again, because it’s gorgeous there, too,” he said.
Living for so many years in a locale even colder and snowier than Wyoming requires one to have a pastime. Parnell is an avid reader who particularly enjoys science fiction.
“In 10th or 11th grade, a friend handed me Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. It was pretty cutting-edge at the time, with lots of things that were not considered acceptable to write about,” he recalled. “That would have been about 1978 for me. It was mind-expanding – mind-blowing, almost – because of the things that he wrote about. But it got me to think about all sorts of things in different ways. That’s been the central book on the shelf for many, many years for me and Heinlein was my favorite author for years.”
Parnell’s read on Western is that it’s an institution that shares the same objectives to which he has dedicated his higher education career: the success and enrichment of students. That made Western the right move for him. The former missile commander has set his sights on delivering exemplary student service to support degree completion and academic achievement.
“I want to make sure we’re giving students the absolute best chance possible,” Parnell said. “They come to us with big dreams and they’re willing to work; we ought to do everything in our power to help. The worst thing in my world is when a student comes to me and says, ‘I don’t think I can do it and I’m leaving.’ I don’t think there is anybody who we enroll at this College who can’t succeed with enough help.”