Alumni Spotlight: Geran Tarr

October 23, 2013
Geran Tarr

I AM UAA: Geran Tarr

Master of Public Administration
Hometown: Akron, Ohio
Fun Fact: Had 10-seconds of fame with background shot in the movie Game Change.

From Akron, OH to Anchorage, AK

Geran Tarr’s journey to the 49th state is your typical Alaska transplant story; fresh-out-of-college graduate seeks adventure on the last frontier. Born and raised near Akron, Ohio, the UAA Department of Biological Sciences adjunct only meant to stay in Alaska for a summer, but some 15 years later she’s still here and her passion for botany and public service has led her on a not-so-typical journey.

Geran_TarrWEB

Legislators Geran Tarr and Harriet Drummond enjoying strawberries in the field on Arthur Keyes’ farm in Palmer in August 2013.

“I moved up here about a week after I graduated from my undergrad in Ohio. I studied environmental studies, botany and women studies,” says Geran. “As I was wrapping up my college days, I was looking for the next adventure and that’s what brought me to Alaska.”

Her family was not all that surprised that she was packing up and moving thousands of miles to the most northern reaches of the U.S.—they figured she’d be coming back. But Geran quickly felt the call of the wild, impressed by Alaska’s vast wilderness and stunning natural beauty. She also knew that with her sciences background, finding career opportunities would be easier here than in the Lower 48.

In her first year, she landed a few odd jobs—performing medicinal plant research and guiding as a naturalist for an outdoor women’s adventure company, which took her all over the state and to the Yukon. Eventually she found a more stable work framing environmental public policy and teaching at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

“I have a lot of fun teaching other people,” says Geran. “It’s kind of uncommon to have a degree in botany, so at the time there was a botany class taught here on campus and they needed a person here to teach the lab. It was just a great fit for me.”

Soon after Geran came on board, the university realigned and the yearlong botany course was trimmed to a semester, so she moved over to UAA’s Department of Biological Sciences teaching human anatomy and physiology classes, where she’s stayed ever since.

“This is my 24th semester of teaching,” Geran says smiling. “A lot of growth has happened at the university in this time, which is why it makes it so fun to be a part of it.”

Botany and public service

Geran is a botanist at heart, specifically ethno-botany, studying how people use plants for food and medicine. She feels plants and food are a way to connect people to caring about their environment, their health and about each other. Fifteen years ago she was ahead of the curve in Alaska, looking at food from a social justice and sustainability standpoint. As time went on and the homegrown food movement gained traction in the Lower 48, Geran worked to raise awareness through her work here in Alaska—foreshadowing what was to be her first time stepping into the political spotlight.

“When people are thinking about the kind of food they eat there’s opportunities to think about how food is grown, the environmental impact, who grew that food and were they paid and treated well,” says Geran. “And, is it healthy for me?”

Working on these issues early in her career helped her appreciate the public process and how these public conversations tend to bring people together for the greater good. From the get-go, Geran got involved with the local food movement, helped to found the Alaska Organic Association (no longer in existence) and became one of the founding board members of the Anchorage Farmers Market.

“People think it’s kind of funny to go from this environmental science background to politics, but a lot of what I was doing with this science background was public policy work,” says Geran, explaining the quizzical look she gets from people when they ask how she bridged from science to politics. “I was working for a nonprofit organization on issues related to pesticides and human health, drafted a bill that Sen. Ellis and then Rep. Sharon Cissna introduced, and I started working as the nonprofit advocate for the legislation.”

A year later opportunity arose when a staffer from Sen. Ellis’s office left and suggested Geran take her place; suddenly she found herself in the world of politics as Ellis’s chief of staff.

“I worked there for five years and learned a lot about the legislative process. I really enjoyed the work,” says Geran. “It was rewarding and I got to focus on things that I am really passionate about.”

Although Geran left Sen. Ellis’s office, she continued to be involved in her Community Council, held a leadership position and served on the Anchorage Women’s Commission. When the state of Alaska reset voting districts, Geran was again faced with a political opportunity.

When opportunity comes knocking…

“When redistricting happened, two districts were essentially turned into one and the representative, Sharon Cissna, decided to move on and run for Congress and there was an opening,” Geran says. “So I decided to throw my hat in the ring and here I am.”

It wasn’t as simple as Geran makes it sound. There was a lot of work. Diving into a political campaign is like opening a business for only a short amount of time. Her life broke into weeks and months of late night meetings and early-morning canvassing in neighborhoods to get the word out about her campaign.

Despite the long days, after one year on the job as a freshmen representative, she’s excited for more. Geran has always felt the need to give back to the community and she feels representing Airport Heights, Russian Jack and Mountain View neighborhoods is one of the best ways to help a wide range of people in the community. At the end of the day, that’s really what she thinks the job is all about.

“I like being in this position because of the work I get to do, that’s the strongest attraction to being a legislator,” says Geran. “The part where there’s a lot of attention focused on you is the less desirable part I think.”

Geran isn’t like your typical legislator, either. She says she enjoys going to door-to-door, taking the time to speak individually to people she’s representing and hearing what they care about. She says she has family members cheering her on and her experience so far has been incredibly positive. She finds people receptive to chatting with her about the tough issues.

North to the future

Geran’s not entirely sure of her plans down the road, but would like to keep pursuing her political career and teaching at UAA. Her passion for public service grew out of her love for botany and helping teach people about their food and the environment. Whether she is in the public eye, going door-to-door campaigning or lecturing in the classroom at UAA, one thing Geran will continue to do throughout her life is teach.

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