“All of us are called to serve, in some way,” Sakbun said.
This conviction was instilled by his parents and the people of Terre Haute. His father, Dr. Vannara Sakbun, is an OB-GYN who volunteers as a faculty member for IU School of Medicine. Having witnessed so much death, especially among young children, as a survivor of the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s, he knew we wanted to bring life into the world. Sakbun’s mother, Carlene Sakbun, is a Jamaican immigrant and an entrepreneur who is passionate about mentoring young women.
Their involvement in the Terre Haute community was a blessing to Sakbun, he said. He fondly recalls a special grandparent’s day at Sugar Grove Elementary School.
“My grandparents couldn’t make it since they lived far away,” he said. “I remember 10 folks who didn’t look anything like me showed up to be my grandparents. I went from the lonely kid in the corner to being surrounded and supported.”
“The community raised me here in Terre Haute, and it is an honor to give back to them as a public servant.”
Learning to lead
Even in high school, Sakbun knew he wanted to run for office one day. As a result, he decided it was important to get an education in finance, business and public policy.
“I firmly believe that as an elected official, one should have a background in business, accounting and finance,” Sakbun said. “Ultimately, you are trying to invest and use taxpayer dollars to provide services to the people. I knew Kelley School of Business could provide me with those tools. It is a highly ranked business school at the national level and only 60 miles away.”
The desire to serve his hometown was coupled with a desire to serve his country. While earning his bachelor’s degree, he was also a member of the IU Army ROTC program.
“Being able to pursue a military career and a strong education in finance was a dream come true,” he said. “That is why I chose Indiana University over several military service academies.”
“One thing that has always separated the Kelley School of Business and the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs from their competitors is that they have so many leaders that come in as volunteer faculty,” he said. “They are truly passionate about teaching and mentoring students.”
Indiana University has a long history of producing leaders. Paul O’Neill, the former U.S. secretary of the treasury and the school’s namesake, earned his graduate degree in public affairs from IU. The current ambassador of Ukraine to the United States, Oksana Markarova, is an O’Neill School graduate, as is Cardell Johnson, the director of natural resources and environment for the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Elinor Ostrom, the 2009 winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, was a faculty member, and world-renowned economist David Audretsch is a current member of O’Neill’s faculty.
Upon graduating from the Kelley School with his bachelor’s in business administration, Sakbun joined the Army’s Special Operations Ranger Regiment as a platoon leader and executive officer. In July 2022, while still serving in the military, he enrolled in O’Neill’s online MPA program.
“To prepare for returning to Terre Haute, I started O’Neill’s online MPA while on active duty because it’s highly ranked and very flexible,” Sakbun said. “What the MPA program allowed me to do is work with professors and use academic research to look into cities like Terre Haute and see where we could go. Conversations about how to proactively look at infrastructure, utilities, business development, race and gender equality all started in the MPA program.”
“The O’Neill School is not just a place to learn but a place to grow, to connect and to make a difference,” said Siân Mooney, the dean of the O’Neill School. “The faculty, staff and students at O’Neill are dedicated to advancing the public good through rigorous research, innovative teaching, and meaningful service and experiences, both inside and outside the classroom. Our alumni also serve as mentors to the next generation of leaders, which allows our graduates to enter their careers prepared to make an immediate impact.”
In January 2023, six months into the MPA program, Sakbun announced his mayoral candidacy. His confidence stemmed from his experience in the military and his educational journey.
“The professors at IU were excellent, and I’d be hard pressed to find a professor in a course that did not help me to be a better mayor,” he said. “At O’Neill, many are former public servants on both sides of the aisle. The research faculty provide the data you need, avoid twisting narratives and show you the methodology. Not everyone is exposed to that, but IU and the O’Neill School did that for me, so I’ll forever be indebted.”
Helping Hoosier students
He completed his MPA in December 2023 and was inducted as mayor of Terre Haute in January 2024. Over the course of his career, he hopes to have a powerful impact on the community of Terre Haute and the Hoosier state while encouraging the next generation of leaders.
He is paying it forward by periodically speaking at the O’Neill School in a class taught by Tim Berry, managing director at Crowe LLP. Sakbun talks about the call to public service and offers this advice to IU students:
“Identify where your passion and call to serve intersect, then channel that and follow through. Don’t just chase a job or career. Through your unique field, knowledge, skills and experiences, think about how you can make a difference in the lives of others. Chase impact.”