A.A.S. ’11, B.S. Technology ’11
Hometown: St. Paul, Minn., and Palmer, Alaska
Fun Fact: Has a “Top Gun” story about how he met his wife; she was his instructor for crew training on the F-15s during his Air Force career.
George Kulhanek is a man with a plan. When he was a young loadmaster at the beginning of his 10-year Air Force career, he got a taste of Alaska and quickly put in a request to be transferred from Travis Air Force Base in California to Elmendorf in Anchorage. He knew that’s where he wanted to be, and he made it happen. Now, as an environmental health officer for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), he approaches each week of health and safety inspections within his jurisdiction of Wasilla with strategy, leadership and preparation. He doesn’t leave much to chance, in general—and approaching his education at UAA was no different.
After a decade in the Air Force, 14 years as a safety and quality control manager for a major service company at the Anchorage International Airport and 7 years as an equipment and sanitation supervisor for Lufthansa Service Group, George was 45 years old and decided, of all things, that it was time to earn his college degree.
“I had taken different college courses throughout the years here and there,” says George, “but I had never had them focused into a specific degree program. By 2003, the airline industry had taken a hit in terms of process, security and operational changes, so I decided it was time to change things up.”
Being the planning man that he is, George turned to the Veterans Administration to see what aid he could receive as a disabled Air Force veteran. He tapped into Alaska’s vocational rehab program, did thorough research on what jobs were out there that required qualifications that he was interested in getting (or already had), and he set out to pursue his associate degree in Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) and Bachelor of Science in technology.
“Safety has always been an exciting career field for me, and aviation safety was one of my life’s loves,” says George. So he was bringing a lot to the table when he started his UAA programs. As a nontraditional student, too, he says he felt “more supported at UAA than I had ever been in anything I had ever done in my life.”
George did notice as he was going through his OSH program that other students were getting distracted by jobs that became available and they’d pursue those instead of finishing their degrees. “That’s all well and good until those jobs went away and they found themselves back in the program again,” he says. “I had job offers, too, during my program, but I had a game plan. And the plan was to finish my education.”
For his bachelor’s capstone project, he developed a catalog of Alaska sea lanes, titled “On the Slide,” for float pilots. By 2011, he graduated cum laude from both of his programs and quickly set about planning his job search—but not before he took the summer off.
An avid hunter, fisherman, boater and pilot, George decided it was time to take a well-deserved break over the summer before hitting the market with his newly refreshed resume.
“My plan was to started putting in applications to federal and state government positions in October, give it four months to see what the results were, and then move on to the private sector,” he explains. “In January, I was contacted by the DEC and was hired into my position as an environmental health officer. I couldn’t ask for a better job or a better group of people who are my team members, my subordinates and my superiors. Every day is a new adventure.”
As a student, George always saw the value in getting involved and expanding his horizons—he’s a self-proclaimed lifelong learner. He was president of both the Math Club at Mat-Su College and the UAA student chapter of the American Society of Safety Engineers.
“I believe that getting involved in the higher education process is the best way to really appreciate the value of higher education,” he says.
Even now, two years after graduation, he is still volunteering his time. In the community, he is a volunteer instructor with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Hunter Education Program. At UAA, he sits as an advisory board member of the Community and Technical College’s Plus 50 Initiative.
The Plus 50 Initiative is a program that is helping adult learners, who have maybe already had a full career and/or have a portion of a degree finished from the past, to re-enter UAA’s education system and be successful at remarketing themselves for the workforce.
George has been there. And he’s thrilled to be helping other nontraditional students plan for their own successes.