Matt Childs’ first UAA graduation was pretty informal. He finished in December, but had to miss May commencement. When he went to pick up his degree, the registrar’s assistant — alarmed to hear he wouldn’t walk at his own graduation — quickly assembled her coworkers for an impromptu fête. Matt walked through a crowd of applauding strangers to receive his degree from the office manager on an otherwise normal workday in the Admin Building.
His second UAA graduation involved a bit more fanfare. Matt not only walked at commencement, he also became the inaugural student speaker at UAA’s hooding ceremony, where master’s and doctoral students receive their regalia. Though undergraduate Nina Lee addressed the crowd at Sunday’s commencement, the student speaker selection committee liked Matt’s message of positivity and responsibility so much they added the same role at Saturday’s hooding just for him.
These kinds of personal touches defined Matt’s experience at UAA. “That was just the sweetest thing,” he said, recalling his graduation “ceremony” in the Admin Building 20 years ago. “I love that story, [and] that is very typical of my experience at the university. Professors and staff, really making sure the experience is what it needs to be.”
North to the data future
Like many students at UAA, Matt held a full-time job throughout college. He worked as a software developer while pursuing a degree in history and, more recently, worked as a data analyst while studying for his M.B.A. He is currently director of data analysis at GCI. “I love the job,” he said. “It’s a really interesting place to be.
In today’s age of FitBits, smartphones and, yes, even smart pillows, companies are thirsty for data to better serve customers. At the Alaska-based telecommunications company GCI, data makes a difference.
“The internet has changed the way people think about what information is available to them,” Matt said of the business intelligence industry. Consumers provide data constantly — think grocery loyalty cards — and companies finally have the capacity to crunch these massive data sets.
Data helps GCI provide for its unique client base. In Southeast cruise ports, for example, data shows how many cruise ship passengers use GCI cell towers, influencing contract negotiations with national carriers. Along the Iditarod Trail, a data deluge follows race leaders, prompting GCI to plan for increased power on the tundra. And in Western Alaska, where a federally supported fiber network extends off the pipeline, data keeps remote communities in touch.
That rural connectivity is a point of pride for Matt. “We’ve invested about $300 million in the last few years for 40,000 customers,” he said of GCI’s expanded service in Western Alaska. Though the connection can’t support binge-watching Netflix, it does provide a crucial link for services like telemedicine and online education. “We’re committed to rural Alaska,” he said.
Though already established in his career, Matt returned to UAA to hone his skills. His work experience spoke highly of his abilities, but his academic background — a history degree, plus an M.A. in creative writing from Alaska Pacific University — didn’t logically match his profession. After consulting his boss, she encouraged him to pursue an M.B.A. She was so supportive she even offered to pay, so long as he attended in-person. That plan worked for Matt. Education is the essential piece of grad school, “but I think the social part of it is just as important,” he said.
Rather than just take night classes each week and head home, Matt chose to get involved. He joined the M.B.A. student association and signed up for Leadership Fellows, a mentorship program that pairs interested students with local professionals (in a rare twist, he mentored a classmate interested in data and business intelligence).
Most important to Matt, though, were his grades. He wanted to show his boss that he took the company’s investment seriously. After three years, he graduated with a 4.0
With great statistical significance comes great responsibility
Matt’s life is numbers, and his message for his grad school classmates followed suit. With his family in the audience — including his daughter, just returned for the summer from college — he spoke about the data of graduation.
Sixty percent of high school kids pursue a college education, he noted. And only 60 percent of them graduate. Of those graduates, only 11 percent earns a master’s.
“That number gets smaller and smaller and smaller,” he said. “I wanted to point that out to people and congratulate them. It’s a big deal and should be celebrated. But it’s a responsibility … You’ve committed your time and talent and you’ve earned it, but at the same time, you’re now responsible for doing something with it.
He’s optimistic about the change his classmates will make in Alaska and beyond. “That was the crux of my message: Go find those things to do,” he continued. “The world is changing very rapidly — it’s never not going to be that way — go look for those opportunities to make it better.
It’s a lesson he learned, in part, from the personal touches he experienced at UAA.
“Use your gifts and your talents and your education with everyone you meet. And make the world a better place,” he said. “Because if we don’t, who will.”
Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement