English Major Profile: Holly Hanna (M.A. 2011)

Holly Hanna, a high school English teacher, joined the English M.A. program in 2005. She earned her M.A. while teaching full-time. After graduating, she co-created and led an alternative school, East Campus in Muscatine, Iowa, rooted in human-centered design. She has presented on education and pedagogy around the world, and she is currently teaching in Saudi Arabia. She is also working on her Doctorate of Education degree.

M&L: What brought you to the graduate program at Western? 

At the time I made the decision to pursue my Master of Arts in English, I was teaching at Davenport Central High School. Therefore, I searched for a program that offered evening classes. Logistically, Western’s Quad City campus was conveniently located, but more importantly, I truly appreciated the variety of classes offered. I initially applied with the desire to grow as an educator. I had no idea how powerful the experience would be on so many other aspects of my career and life. 

M&L: What were some of your best experiences in the English graduate program? 

To this day, approximately eight years later, I distinctly remember details about each of my classes. It is difficult to narrow my time at Western into best experiences because so much of who I am today is the result of engaging, unique courses; powerful literature; profound class discussions; and authentic, passionate professors. 

M&L: How did your graduate degree contribute to your career in teaching? 

My graduate degree contributed to my career in so many ways, from the content I taught to the theory I introduced to students. More importantly, and it is even more evident to me today, my professors taught cutting-edge concepts that transformed my perspective not only about English but pedagogy as well. As a student, I was consistently pushed to think fearlessly, creatively, and from multiple perspectives. I carried that into my teaching and leadership. Furthermore, I am a firm proponent of interdisciplinary education, as nothing in life belongs in a compartment; everything is interconnected. That was not a concept typically taught in my education classes, but it was taught in all of my English graduate classes. 

M&L: What brought you to the Middle East? 

Both my husband and I had presented overseas and also had been members of the Fulbright Teaching Excellence and Achievement Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Members were given the choice to teach in one of several countries for two weeks; I was placed in Argentina. My husband taught in the country of Georgia. A few years later, I presented in China and my husband attended the conference as well. It was then we began thinking about moving our family overseas. A few months later, not fully understanding the system, we stumbled through the process and began our international journey in Kuwait. Two years later, we accepted positions in Saudi Arabia where we currently teach. We certainly did not imagine we would one day live in the Middle East, but we have thoroughly enjoyed living in this region. Our two youngest children have been in Arabic classes for the past three years. They are able to hold small conversations and read Arabic letters/numbers. We have been so grateful for this adventure. 

M&L: What inspired you to go on for the Doctorate of Education degree?

 I am currently working on my Ed.D. I have spent many years working toward change in K-12 education. Several years ago, I co-created/led an alternative school rooted in human-centered design. Students applied the required learning in the classroom to authentic change in their communities. They collaborated with businesses and organizations on various social innovations. My desire to pursue a doctoral degree was inspired by one of the most heartbreaking comments students consistently made during my time co-leading the alternative school. In reference to their past academic experiences, they would explain, “I thought I was broken.” My response was always, “No, the system is broken. Not you.” They ached for creativity, empowerment, trust, and purpose. In addition to the fact that I love to continue to learn, I felt it was important to pursue an Ed.D so I was better able to serve students who lacked a voice in an education system deeply entrenched in standardized assessments. 

M&L: What advice would you give to students just beginning the M.A. program here at Western? 

Enjoy your time and the experience, knowing the literature, discussions, insight, etc. will undoubtedly inspire not only your career but your life. For example, authors and concepts I was introduced to at Western now inform the beginning stages of my dissertation. For years I have been researching the symbiotic relationship between humans and machines, using Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media as one of my guides. The first time I was introduced to McLuhan was in Dr. Banash’s class. Therefore, when I stumbled across McLuhan’s work years later in my doctoral program, it was familiar. Although I was aware of the profound insight I had gained through Western, I had no idea in what ways it would influence my future research. Your experiences at Western will have long-lasting, positive effects.  Also, find the connections, the patterns illuminated by theory. Theory offers creative complexity and brings patterns to the surface. Innovation can be found in those patterns. I learned that from each of my professors at Western. I am so grateful for every one of them.