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Sara Young Jackson: Student, Staff Member, Chancellor

Sara Jackson

In honor of Women’s History Month, the Seaver Newsroom has published a series of three articles that highlight significant women who have impacted Pepperdine University in a positive and meaningful manner. This final installment focuses on Sara Young Jackson's lifetime of service to her alma mater.

When Sara Young Jackson gazes out her window on the fourth floor of the Thornton Administrative Center, she sees a dream actualized. Rather than thinking on the Pacific Ocean or Phillips Theme Tower down below, the chancellor of Pepperdine University considers her father – M. Norvel Young – and his aspirations of contributing to higher education.

“It was the fulfillment of my dad’s dream to build this Malibu Campus,” explains Jackson. “It was the answer to a lot of prayers. So everytime I come on campus I think, ‘I'm living in my dad’s dream.’”

The Young family circa 1955Jackson began her relationship with Pepperdine at 3 years old when her father took over as the University’s third president. Since that time, she has played a series of roles – student, staff member, and now chancellor –  in taking the University from a budding Christian college to a leader in academia.

“I know, from being around education all my life, how transformative it is,” explains Jackson. “[You] have the power to transform a life through a degree – through learning.”

Jackson’s own educational endeavors started at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. After two years in the midwest, she decided to transfer back home and finish her bachelor’s degree in English Literature at Pepperdine in 1974. From there, she earned a master's degree in marriage and family counseling from Fuller Seminary, which propelled her to a career in Portland, Oregon – working at Lutheran counseling center. 

“I’m not much of a planner,” says Jackson. “I’m not someone who plots out their life, but it wasn’t a perfect fit for me to be a marriage and family counselor.”

This realization, along with the need to support her husband through his Ph.D, brought Jackson back to Pepperdine as a staff member. Initially, she served as the assistant director of Student Life, earning $13,000 a year. Yet, it took little time for Jackson to be quickly promoted to the director of the Student Life team.

From this point forward, her route to becoming chancellor is filled with twists, turns, and a multitude of innovative projects. First, she was called upon to launch the Volunteer Center. Then, Jackson was enlisted to start the Boone Center for the Family – which empowers community leaders. And finally, she launched her own initiative – the Women in Leadership Institute – that assists women in building the confidence and competence needed to lead others.

“My sweet spot is promoting and starting great programs,” exclaims Jackson. “That’s energizing for me. I like convincing others that an idea is great and that it will benefit our students…. I’ve alwaysSara Jackson been trained to go for excellence. I have a drive to achieve, to do well, and to be able to compete with anyone on an equal playing field.”

In 2018, President Jim Gash named Sara Young Jackson chancellor of Pepperdine University. With this accomplishment, she became the first female chancellor in the University’s history – an accomplishment with a new set of unique obstacles.

“It was a challenge for me to speak up in a boardroom full of men,” says Jackson. “I was programmed to think that I was there to listen and affirm, but that I didn’t have that much to offer. It’s been a real personal growth experience to challenge myself to speak up and to have the courage and confidence that I’m as smart and as experienced as anybody in this room. I have something to contribute.”

This is the perspective Jackson now seeks to share with the women of Pepperdine. By helping other women recognize their value, she hopes to pass along the valuable lessons that have carried her to this point. 

“The women at Pepperdine can benefit from being in community together,” says Jackson. “There is a lot of power in women being together, supporting each other, and helping each other think through their career path.”

Concerning her own professional route, the Seaver Alumna cannot help but consider its full circle nature. In rising throughout the University’s ranks, Jackson has managed to follow in her father’s footsteps. Thus, the stunning view outside her window extends beyond mere aesthetic value.

“I can’t express how meaningful it is to hold the role of chancellor,” Jackson expresses. “It is such an honor to hold the role that my dad also had.”