A few years ago, Sean Farrell was unsure whether he had the academic qualifications to be accepted into a master’s program at UCF.
Fast forward to present day, and Farrell not only is graduating this spring with his master’s in nonprofit management, he also serves as director for Advancement for Student Development and Academic Success in the College of Undergraduate Studies — raising funds for programs and projects across the university that foster students’ academic, personal and professional growth.
It’s a full-circle moment for Farrell and his family, and one they’re commemorating with a generous gift to establish the Farrell Nonprofit Opportunity Scholarship, which will cover tuition, books and fees for students.
Between their gratitude for the opportunities UCF offered and a shared passion for philanthropy, Farrell and his wife, Valerie, knew they wanted to give back. That’s when they decided to establish a scholarship fund for undergraduate nonprofit management students. It’s also provided teachable moments for their two young children, 7-year-old Peter and 5-year-old Colleen, on the importance of both academic excellence and philanthropy.
“I know firsthand that going into the nonprofit industry is challenging, especially in your first few years,” he says. “The more we can do to invest in our nonprofit students, the more the effect will multiply across the community. When Valerie and I talked about it, we kept coming back to the word opportunity. They say UCF stands for opportunity, and that’s true.”
Farrell earned a bachelor’s degree in history and had planned to teach high school social sciences. But life had other plans, and he soon found himself in the world of nonprofits. He began by working on program development for youth and young adult programs for the Diocese of Orlando and other Catholic nonprofits across Central Florida.
“I really found that there was a great opportunity in nonprofits to develop — personally and professionally,” he says. “I saw folks who were in the nonprofit profession — whether through finance, human resources, fundraising, or marketing and communications — and on a trajectory toward achieving great things at all levels. I really picked up on that.”
Farrell served with various Catholic nonprofits and spent time in healthcare philanthropy before he decided four years ago that it was time to go back to school — an accomplishment he couldn’t initially see a clear path toward. Having struggled academically in his undergraduate career, he found it to be a roadblock on his journey toward pursuing a master’s program.
That was before he found the master’s in nonprofit management program at UCF. He inquired about it and presented his case, asking if there was a place for him in the program — and there was.
“I was excited to find out that it was a nationally ranked program, and it really became clear to me at that point,” he says. “When I was accepted into the program, I can’t tell you how grateful I was and how much of a new lease on life and an opportunity it gave me.”
Shortly after beginning the program, Farrell was encouraged by friends to consider working at UCF. That turned into serving for more than three years as the associate director of Advancement for the College of Engineering and Computer Science before his recent promotion.
“I learned a ton and got to work on some really incredible gifts together with colleagues and some of our university leaders,” he says. “I wouldn’t have dreamed of having those opportunities otherwise. That brings me full circle. This person who wasn’t even sure if UCF would accept me as a student is now sitting in Millican Hall helping undergraduate students through the work I do. The irony is not lost on me.”
Although much of his career has been centered on fundraising and philanthropy, Farrell says his time in the program afforded him an even closer look at multiple aspects of the nonprofit management realm.
“I had never taken such a deep dive into program evaluation and what it means to objectively weigh programs — what’s working, what’s not, outputs and outcomes,” he says. “I also have never had such an amazing appreciation of research as I do now.”
With four years of attending school part time coming to a close, Farrell says he couldn’t have done it without the support of his family, and they are looking forward to seeing what their next chapter with UCF will bring.
“It’s because of the transformational opportunities that UCF gave me these last few years to chart a different path professionally and academically that I’m here now doing this,” he says.