Inspiring grads: Sean Flynn

Sean Flynn
Sean Flynn

A week after his 45th birthday, Sean Flynn will have another reason to celebrate — he will have his bachelor’s degree in public policy.

“I’m the old guy on campus,” said Flynn, an Honors College member who will celebrate commencement Dec. 12.

Flynn’s path to his undergraduate degree began decades ago. At 17, he became a father, dropping out of high school and getting his GED. He attempted community college twice, but his family was the priority.

“I wasn’t focused,” he said. “I was a new father balancing a family. It always came down to: do I work these extra hours or do I take this class? And, ultimately, my choice was that I needed to work.”

In the years that followed, Flynn found his calling working with at-risk teens on the South Side of Chicago with a faith-based nonprofit organization.

“I would help young people and their families, connecting them to resources and trying to be a positive influence in their lives,” Flynn said. “What I realized was, you can help someone in short term, like connecting them to a pantry that will help them today, but it wasn’t bringing long-term systemic change — it wasn’t changing their lives. So, I began to think bigger picture, and one of the highest levels you can get to is policy reform, whether it’s education, crime or poverty reduction.”

It wasn’t until 2017, when his children were off to college themselves, that Flynn was able to commit to focusing on his education. Flynn’s wife, Shirino, gave him the push he needed to go back to school to study public policy.

“She said to me, four years are going to go by either way — either you can have a degree at the end of it, or you’re in the same situation you’re in now,” Flynn said. “Those words resonated with me and I took the ball from there. It just seemed like I had the time and opportunity, and there were no more excuses.”

He received his associate’s degree in sociology at City Colleges of Chicago, then transferred to UIC. Shortly before he started at UIC in August 2019, he faced more adversity: the house where he was living burned down and he lost all of his possessions. Flynn and his wife stayed at hotels, short-term rentals and with friends until they were able to purchase a new home in January.

“And all the while, I’m still in school, taking six classes, and we just had to proceed like life was still rolling,” he said.

Flynn also had to look for part-time work after leaving his full-time job to focus on his degree. He was able to find several different positions: as an aldermanic aide, census ambassador and intern at the Chicago Federal Executive Board, among other positions.

“I needed to pick up three other jobs to make up for one full-time job, but it allowed me more breathing room with school,” he said. “All of these jobs have given me different looks at government services and they’ve been very interesting experiences. Each and every one of those components has contributed to making me a better public policy student. It’s helped me in terms of learning my craft and getting out in the real world and advocating or giving advice on policies or being a policy analyst.”

After graduation, Flynn will stay at UIC to complete his master’s degree in public administration. He’s on track to complete that degree in December 2021, then plans to embark on a career in government.

“I’ve really enjoyed the lessons I’ve learned and the atmosphere at UIC,” he said. “It’s definitely made a difference in my life. I am grateful and glad I made it to UIC — this is the best place for me.”

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