When Hannah Jackson was growing up in Toxey, Alabama, she dreamed of graduating from The University of Alabama one day. But when she left home for college, she landed about an hour southwest of Tuscaloosa in Livingston, earning her bachelor’s in Early Childhood and Elementary Education in December 2017. After graduation, she secured a long-term substitute position in a pre-K class for 4-year-olds that lasted through May, but after that, her job search became stressful.

“I applied for 148 jobs in Baldwin County and we were getting close to the end of the summer and I still had no job, no housing plans – nothing,” Hannah shared. Unsure about what her career in education looked like, she decided to pursue a master’s to help her stand out in future applications and interviews.

In her long-term substitute role, there had been a few students with special education needs, and she tutored a student part time who had special education needs. “Those kids were the spark for me, so I decided to pursue a master’s that would help me meet their needs,” Hannah said. “I’d heard about Bama By Distance from when I was in Livingston, because I was always in Tuscaloosa then – at football games and on campus for other events. So, when I saw they had that master’s online, I was like, OK, I’ve always wanted a degree from UA. I’m doing this!

Hannah applied to the 100% online MA in Special Education with Collaborative 6-12 certification (UA also offers the program online with Collaborative K-6 certification). Her good fortune didn’t stop there. “The same week I got accepted to the master’s, I got a job at Foley Elementary teaching third grade! It was totally a God thing.”

Over half of Hannah’s students in her first year of teaching had unique needs either through special education or ESL, so her coursework in the program was immediately helpful to her. “At the time, Foley was the largest elementary school in the state of Alabama, and we only had one special education teacher for 11 third grade classrooms. My undergrad only had one special education class. With so many special education kids in my class, especially during my first year of teaching, it was definitely challenging. Learning that content in my master’s was beneficial.”

In the midst of an especially difficult first year teaching, Hannah was also still tutoring the same boy part time and volunteering with a church youth group. Even with a full plate, she was able to balance online master’s coursework. “It was overwhelming at first, and I had to get used to being completely online. But the faculty were always there to help us and were very accommodating.”

One professor in particular was especially helpful to Hannah. Dr. Ashley Cawley is the program coordinator and also served as Hannah’s faculty adviser. “I feel like I probably harassed her, but she was so great! There were times when I was very stressed, and she assured me I could get everything done on time. She was just always there for me. She even taught a class with only me in it so I could finish on time.”

After she completed her internship in Spring 2020, when it was time for Hannah to graduate, she was talking to Dr. Cawley “nonstop,” worried about what would happen to graduation in response to COVID-19 concerns. “I cried when I thought it was canceled. I have dreamed about graduating from the University since I was little kid. It is such a big deal to me.” Hannah was relieved when UA announced that Spring 2021 graduates could participate in a delayed ceremony along with summer graduates. She traveled to Tuscaloosa with her boyfriend and family to walk the graduation stage. “The whole time I was like a kid on Christmas. It was perfect. I absolutely loved it. I even got a class ring!”

Since she began the program, Hannah’s career has shifted. She is currently an admissions counselor at Columbia Southern University at Orange Beach and has moved to Florida due to her boyfriend’s Air Force career. “Even though my career is not super related right now, I have no regrets.” She said the program’s content has helped her counsel friends and family who have children with special needs, and she appreciates being able to offer an informed perspective. She loves teaching and is open to returning to the field, and she knows having her master’s in Special Education will make her a more attractive candidate in future job searches.

“This program was a good fit for me because I was able to fulfill my lifelong dream and continue working and living at the beach while I completed the program. Bama By Distance made it possible for me to do that. As for the future, it’s just really wherever God takes me.”

Published: December 7th, 2020