Hannah and Josh Millwood

Story: Lisa Sollie | Photo: Cody Ingram

More than a slogan or tagline, there really is something about The University of West Alabama that drew Hannah and Josh Millwood back to their alma mater.

Teaching wasn’t on their radar when the pair attended UWA as undergraduates. And yet it wasn’t long before Hannah, who recently took on the role of master science teacher for UWA-Teach, found herself in the classroom, spending the past five years as a science teacher at Hale County High School. Josh, an assistant professor, is relatively new to teaching, but both are thrilled to return to the University.

“I think it’s kind of cool that the first science class I ever took at UWA was zoology,” noted Josh, “and now it’s the first class I’m teaching. This is all so surreal, the fact I am now a faculty member and colleague with the professors I had as an undergrad. I forget that sometimes when I’m talking to them, and they have to remind me I can call them by their first name now,” he chuckled.

Although Hannah looks forward to shaping the next generation of science teachers at UWA, transitioning from K-12 to post-secondary was challenging.

“Change is tough for me, but once the semester began, I had the same feeling I had when I decided to come here as an undergrad, and I knew I made the right choice,” she noted. “And I can still impact high school students, just in different way. Through UWA-Teach I have an opportunity to ensure the STEM teachers who graduate from the University are as passionate about their subject areas as I am. Hopefully they will instill that same wonder and excitement in the high school students they will teach someday.”

How it all began

A marine biology major, Hannah began her undergraduate studies at UWA in 2009. After graduating in December 2012, she was asked to fill an elementary school science lab position while the teacher was on maternity leave. Although Hannah enjoyed it, she didn’t consider pursuing a career in teaching; instead, she reached out to Dr. John McCall, now professor emeritus of biology, to discuss going back to school.

“Dr. McCall was the main reason I came to UWA to begin with, so naturally, he was the first person I thought of when I considered pursuing a master’s degree in biology. I returned to UWA in the fall of 2013 and did a thesis track, which included monthly trips to Santa Rosa Sound, taking samples of seagrass meadows. Not only did Dr. McCall help me with that, he also hooked me up with the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), where I worked two seasons as a field technician,” she noted, “before I got a call from a friend who mentioned Demopolis High School needed a science teacher, and I decided I’d give it a try.”

Josh took a more non-traditional route to higher education. After high school, he spent one semester at the University of North Alabama before deciding to go to work. He was busy working his way up the corporate ladder, and Hannah was an undergraduate student at UWA when the two met through mutual friends. When their relationship grew serious a few years later, Josh received an ultimatum that changed the trajectory of his life.

“I’ll never forget. It was 2011, and Hannah’s mom told me if we ever wanted to get married, I needed to earn a degree,” he recalled. “Back then, I wasn’t thrilled when she said that, but I’m very thankful now.”

Josh enrolled at UWA and planned to major in business until he visited the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, where Hannah was attending summer courses.

“I thought what she was doing looked fun, and Hannah, who knew I’d always loved science and being outside, encouraged me to do it. I was nervous because it was completely different from what I’d been doing the past several years, but I hopped on my motorcycle right then and drove straight to Livingston. UWA’s transfer student orientation was going on that day, and I went ahead and changed my major from business to marine biology.”

In the fall of 2012, Josh began his undergraduate work and was active in research over the next four years. Interested in continuing his studies at the graduate level, he began to apply to several universities when a chance of a lifetime opened up at UWA.

“I never had any particular interest in genetics or molecular biology until Dr. Michael Sandel, a new professor at the time, received a big grant to do research on the fish in Lake Baikal, a rift lake situated in southern Siberia, which is the oldest and deepest in the world. When he told me I could go to Siberia at least once, maybe two times if I stayed here at UWA, I couldn’t pass that up,” said Josh.  “I believe I was the third person to earn a Master of Science in Conservation Biology, a degree the University first offered in 2015. It was such an incredible experience that I honestly don’t believe I would have had the opportunity to do at another university.”

The future looks bright

Josh and Hannah are happy to be ‘back home’ among the people they credit for nurturing their love of science and research.

“It’s been rewarding to shift from being mentored as a student to now being mentored as another faculty member and peer,” said Josh. “I’m also looking forward to doing active research with my students once I complete my Ph.D. It’s what I’m most excited about, that and mentoring them one-on-one, just like my professors did with me.”

“I remember how much it meant to have faculty invest and pour into me when I was a student here,” recalled Hannah, “and now I have the opportunity to do the same through UWA-Teach. This unique program allows STEM majors to dip their toes into the world of teaching to see if it’s right for them. Everyone is not a classroom teacher.  I mean, you do have to have passion for that, too, but most people don’t get the opportunity to try it out. If a student decides to take step one, which is a one credit course, Inquiry Approach to STEM Teaching, and they don’t like it and don’t want to move forward with the program — no problem. They’ll get their money back if they passed the class with a C and can continue along their merry way, no strings attached.”

“Hannah and I are two classic examples of people who loved science and research but never thought about teaching, at least not when we were undergrads,” he added. “That’s why we love this program and why the job is such a great fit for her.” When Josh and Hannah recently attended the annual alumni homecoming party, something they’ve done every year since they graduated, the couple noticed something was different. “It hit us as we were talking and visiting with everyone that we weren’t just former students coming back for a visit,” noted Josh, “we’re faculty now — and we’re home.”