Tyler D. Parry
University Libraries Alumnus of the Year
It sounds cliché to say that Tyler Parry was born to be a Rebel. But it’s not entirely inaccurate.
“I was born in 1984, right on the precipice of the UNLV basketball team’s most legendary years,” Parry says. “My mom tells the story that her doctor almost didn’t make it in time to deliver me, as he was busy watching a UNLV basketball game in the lobby. So from birth, UNLV and its sports programs were a primary reference point in my life.”
Indeed, many of Parry’s pivotal life moments are woven together by a common thread — and that thread is colored scarlet and gray.
His undergraduate degree? Earned at UNLV.
His wife? Met her at UNLV.
His current job? Associate professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies in the Department of Interdisciplinary, Gender, and Ethnic Studies at … UNLV.
To be clear, though, that latter one wasn’t exactly part of the game plan when Parry he arrived on campus as a freshman.
He enrolled as a communications major with the goal of landing a job in broadcasting. That changed late in Parry’s sophomore year when he took some upper-division history classes. Eventually, he switched majors and was admitted to the Honors College.
Needless to say, Parry’s decision to audible from communications to history was met with more than one raised eyebrow.
“So many people outside of Liberal Arts told me that I could ‘never do anything’ with a history degree besides teach K-12 or go to law school. But it was the subject/major that most spoke to me and motivated me to do better,” Parry says. “As I grew older and met more people from outside Nevada, I became interested in why people held the beliefs that they did, and how their communities shaped them. And at that point in my life, I was always seeking context for modern situations, and I felt historical materials were the best at providing societal understanding.
“So my initial interests in history were sociological — specifically with an emphasis on learning about different religious traditions and how they influenced different areas of the world.”
One history course in particular — Comparative Slavery, taught by then-UNLV professor Kevin Dawson — connected with Parry like no other. It would end up serving as a career launching pad, informing the areas of focus for his master’s and doctoral degrees — both of which he earned at the University of South Carolina — and, later, his professional research related to African diaspora and the history of slavery in the United States.
Parry has written and edited multiple books on the topics. He also has penned essays that have appeared in various journals and newspapers, including the Journal of African American History, the Journal of Southern History, and the Washington Post.
“Uniquely enough, I now appear on radio and news programs quite frequently to provide social commentary on past and current events, blending historical analysis with my original passion of public communication,” Parry says. “All of this was first nurtured through the faculty of UNLV’s History Department. They were immensely supportive of my pursuits when I was navigating my career path, encouraging me to explore various subjects. I greatly benefitted from their mentorship.”
Looking back on your time as a UNLV student, what were some of the most impactful moments that helped set you up for future success?
Taking Kevin Dawson’s class was obviously a pivotal moment, as he helped to nurture my development as a scholar even before graduate school. He even invited me to take a graduate-level course during my last academic year, which introduced me to the expectations of a history graduate program.
I also entered the Honors College my junior year, and professor Elspeth Whitney of the History Department advocated on my behalf during that process. The Honors College was an incomparable experience that allowed me to engage in discussions with some of the university’s brightest minds.
I remember many of my Honors colleagues were on track to become physicians, engineers, and chemists, and many had already published research, won grants, and they were entering some of the finest graduate programs in the country. In many ways, it was humbling, but also encouraging to know that students — many of them local — from a university in Las Vegas could succeed at the highest levels of academia.
I eventually wrote an honors thesis that won the Lance and Elena Calvert Award for Undergraduate Research, given from the University Libraries. It was the first major academic award I’d ever won.
When you left for South Carolina to continue your education, was it part of the plan to return to your alma mater and teach?
Honestly, no. Both my wife and I were born and raised in Las Vegas; we both worked in casinos during college; and most of our family was here. And had I not been accepted to graduate school, we might have stayed here like many people do (in fact, the vast majority of our friends never moved away from the city).
But after we left for South Carolina, where my wife would get a second degree in nursing to go with her English degree from UNLV, we never expected to be back.
During that period of time, we discovered we actually liked living in other places. Columbia, South Carolina, isn’t the most exciting city, but the greenery of the Southeast and its deep historical legacies made the area beautiful. We took trips all over the East Coast, from Washington, D.C., to Miami, and saw things that the West Coast simply didn’t have.
It made thoughts of staying away from Vegas much easier. It was also pretty clear that, if I succeeded in academia, it was unlikely we would ever move back to Las Vegas. Jobs are so scarce in this profession that returning to one’s hometown is a near impossibility. So it is assumed that you take the first job you get upon graduation. Lucky for us, we’d made peace with that and looked forward to wherever my Ph.D. took us.
Well, that turned out to be back to the West Coast, as I spent my first five years as a professor at California State University, Fullerton, in Orange County, California. We loved many parts of it, and we were fortunate to have our two children there. And because Orange County is relatively close to Las Vegas, we made more frequent trips home than we ever did living in South Carolina.
By this point, UNLV was on an upward trajectory as an institution, and I still found myself rooting for the Rebels’ athletic teams. Then one night while my wife was working a night shift, I was holding one of my children who wouldn’t go to sleep. I was completely exhausted, and I started to think, “You know, being close to home would be so helpful. We’d have both sets of grandparents to help watch the kids. I wonder if UNLV is hiring.”
So, at midnight I went on UNLV’s jobs board and noticed that the deadline for a job related to my area was that very day.
I rushed to get my materials ready, submitted an application, and thought there was absolutely no way this would ever work out — it was a total a shot in the dark. Long story short, I went through the long interview process and was eventually hired.
Returning to my alma mater, to the city where I was born and raised, honestly exceeded my wildest dreams. I still hang out with friends I’ve known for 20-plus years. I drive past familiar places, and now I get to share them with my children.
Describe the genesis of your interest in and passion for African American and African diaspora studies.
As a younger person I was pretty indifferent to formal learning patterns. I never really liked history classes in K-12 (although I did pretty well in them), and preferred to acquire knowledge by engaging with people.
Also, our K-12 curriculum did not prioritize ethnic studies in any substantive way as far as I remember. Cultural experiences often came outside of the classroom, but I did not have a lot of guidance when it came to reading lists or understanding how historical knowledge gets revised as more evidence is discovered.
When I started taking classes at UNLV, I discovered that the approach to historical work is different than just reading books and writing about an event; it was a process that required creativity and thinking outside the box. This approach was ultimately encapsulated by professor Dawson’s Comparative Slavery course, in which students were introduced to primary sources that told the perspective of slavery from the enslaved.
We studied enslaved people beyond their labor and learned about their cultures, including their foodways, music patterns, and recreational practices throughout the Western Hemisphere, as well as how they used various techniques to resist slavery and exploitation. We came to understand the enslaved as humans who had a heritage and personality beyond their legal bondage — they were people who loved, lost, and persevered.
Professor Dawson’s class truly was a lightbulb moment for me in finding a topic that ignited my interest, and it became clear there was still so much to learn within the broader area of the African diaspora.
UNLV is one of the nation’s most diverse campuses and it’s situated in one of the world’s most dynamic cities. In what ways did you benefit from those realities?
In some ways, Las Vegas’ diversity looks ordinary when one is raised here. In fact, I didn’t completely realize the unique benefits of living in Las Vegas until I moved across the country in my mid-20s.
Though South Carolina does have its own forms of diversity, it was pretty clear that the experiences I had growing up — eating different foods, attending cultural festivals, befriending various people from different backgrounds, and learning from the distinctive history of this city’s development — were unique to many new people I met. Traveling allowed me to understand that Las Vegas’ diversity provides a microcosm for more broadly understanding the United States.
Also, each student at UNLV brings a unique perspective to a course topic. After teaching college in a professional setting for more than 10 years, I can say that the classroom discussions at UNLV are incredibly dynamic due to our students’ diverse backgrounds.
UNLV students and alumni are encouraged to embrace their “Rebel spirit” — to be daring, take chances and resist convention. Describe a moment when your “Rebel spirit” was on full display.
Narrowing it down to one example is difficult. But speaking generally, my experience at UNLV taught me to take chances on opportunities — even if they displace you from your comfort zone for a time.
UNLV is one of the first places that told me it was OK (and necessary) to go somewhere else to pursue your goals. You just have to believe the opportunity is worth the time and something you will genuinely enjoy, regardless of the financial outcome.
Obtaining an undergraduate degree from UNLV was the first step toward the many adventures my wife and I have shared in our almost 15 years of marriage. And each decision I’ve made, and every success I’ve obtained, is directly connected to the mentors I had at UNLV, the experiences I had on campus, and the institutional encouragement I felt from friends and family during my studies.