Jeff Powell, a 2013 Africana Studies graduate who has gone onto a successful career in economic development, is the College of Humanities 2022 Young Professional Achievement Award recipient.
Powell, currently Director of Economic Development & Research at Sun Corridor Inc., the economic development organization for Southern Arizona, says his humanities degree has both provided him with a broad skillset and a resume that stands out among the rest.
“My experience in the College of Humanities really taught me how to pursue knowledge and how to follow the things that are interesting to me, and I've carried that over into all my professional roles,” he said. “I try to stay curious. I try to always learn new things. I try to always see things from different perspectives and different angles. And I really credit my education with the College of Humanities for that.”
Powell started his first year at the University of Arizona without having decided on a major, but says he was always a curious student and soon found an interest in the humanities blossoming with his general education classes. In particular, a summer course in Africana Studies studied portions of history, including South African apartheid, in far greater depth than he’d been exposed to before.
“It’s shocking to me how much of this material was not taught in my primary education. There was an exploration about this whole history that had eluded me my entire life. That was really the first time in my academic career were where I felt encouraged to follow my curiosity and to explore ideas that were interesting and exciting to me personally and not just part of the course. And by the end of that course, I was certain that I wanted to major in Africana Studies,” he said.
“When I declared my major in Africana studies, I had no shortage of friends and family asking me, ‘What are your plans with this degree? What are you going to do when you graduate? What's the job look like?’ And I didn't have a good answer,” he says. “It was just a subject matter that was exciting to me that I was passionate about and that's all that mattered to me at that time.
“I think it's a little bit ironic that people were worried about my employability because after I graduated, my Africana Studies degree actually made me more employable. It’s rare that you see an Africana Studies degree on a resume and that piqued the curiosity of many employers and made them ask questions about why I chose that major and how it led me to the position I was applying for.”
At Sun Corridor, Powell works to facilitate job and investment growth in the Tucson region, helping to coordinate the interests of a broad range of private, public, academic and nonprofit groups to promote Southern Arizona as a single economic entity.
“My role is very research focused. When companies come here, they request a lot of information and part of my job is to find that and ensure everything is accurate and up to date. My education in humanities really taught me how to research, how to find good sources, how to find the right information, how to think about information critically,” he said. “My Africana Studies major required a lot of collaboration, discussion and communication. And the business I’m in now is really built on relationships, so those are skills I use every day.”
After graduation, Powell began his career in development working for an NGO in Washington D.C. focused on water security in Africa. He returned to Tucson, working at the University of Arizona as Associate Director of Development for the College of Social & Behavioral Sciences, before joining Sun Corridor in 2019.
“Across his professional roles, Jeff has maintained an impressive commitment to bettering the lives of others, to building prosperous and thriving communities, and to creating the vital connections and relationships that enable such progress. Both his career and his values are tremendous examples of how the humanities can positively impact the world,” said Alain-Philippe Durand, Dorrance Dean of the College of Humanities.