Alaska is a land where beauty grows. UAA alumna Maggie Dewhurst Miller is a part of that landscape. This teenage beauty queen graduated from UAA’s Honors College with a B.S. in psychology in 2003. Then she went straight into graduate school at the University of Minnesota where she earned her Master of Science in genetic counseling. She now works at Providence Alaska Medical Center in the Cancer Center as a certified genetic counselor.
Born and reared in Anchorage, Maggie was an apt pupil who kept her eyes open for opportunity. She is also no stranger to hard work. She has dyslexia and had to really knuckle down and learn how to study to do well in school. It didn’t come easy for her like it might for some others.
During her senior year of high school, Maggie and her parents invested many hours figuring out scholarship possibilities. She says she probably applied for about 30 different scholarships. Some of those she received. Maggie and her parents did the math and figured it equated to getting a thousand dollars or more per hour for the time they spent applying for them.
She was also in the top 10 percent of her graduating class at Service High School and that qualified her to be a UA Scholar, which offers a four-year, $11,000 scholarship. But, Scholars must attend a UA campus. Maggie had already made plans to attend another college Outside. Then, she was crowned Miss Alaska National Teenager 1999 and part of her prize was a full tuition scholarship to any UA school for eight consecutive semesters.
“I was so lucky to have this, it made my future so much easier,” says Maggie. It seemed silly to leave for a school in the Lower 48 when she could get paid to go to school in her hometown.
While attending UAA, Maggie pursued her interest in health care, originally intending to go into nursing. Then one of her four sisters received genetic counseling while pregnant. Maggie had heard of genetic testing before, but the genetic counseling concept intrigued her enough to send her down a different academic path. She switched her focus to studying psychology to prepare for graduate school.
As a student in UAA’s University Honors College, Maggie was connected with a genetic counseling mentor at Providence Alaska Medical Center that helped her with the research and other educational training that she needed. This was just one of the great opportunities she was able to take advantage of while she had supportive folks like Ron Spatz, dean of the University honors College helping her. Maggie thinks the attention she received while at UAA had a huge impact on her. “I don’t believe I would have had that kind of personal attention at any school outside.”
Maggie then went to graduate school at the University of Minnesota (U of M) where she earned her Master of Science in genetic counseling. Since her undergraduate education was paid for, she saved her Permanent Fund Dividends for graduate school where she supplemented that savings with teaching and research assistantships and working in the summers in tourism, as well as assisting with the U-DOC program and UAA freshman orientations. U of M has one of 32 graduate programs accredited by the American Board of Genetic Counseling to educate genetic counseling practitioners in North America. She completed the fast, intense program in two years and was only 23 years old when she started to work full time at Providence in 2005.
People sometimes do express surprise that someone so young has the necessary credentials to counsel them on a complex medical subject such as genetics. But after just a few moments with Maggie the wisdom of this young lady shines through her exceptionally kind eyes. “I’m not here to know everything,” she says. She continues to learn along with the people she helps.
As a certified genetics counselor she helps a person understand their family’s health, interpret what that means, and figure out what they might want to do differently. Most of the information comes from compiling a family tree (or family medical history). Maggie specializes in cancer, offering supportive consultation and counseling to help individuals and families understand inheritance patterns and risk of recurrence, as well as help them make decisions and cope with their personal experiences.
Maggie says her dad had the most influence on her. “He treats everyone the same and with respect, regardless of their position or financial status.” She tries to model her behavior and attitude after his.
Appreciative of all the mentoring she had as a student, Maggie is now returning the favor. She has returned to UAA several times to mentor students that are interested in a similar path she took. She has also taken genetic counseling graduate student interns for the last two summers. “I teach, not in a classroom, but one at a time.” She gives some great advice, too. She has helped several students prepare for getting into graduate school and her interns have gone on to get jobs in the field.
Maggie’s family is supportive of UAA in other ways, too. Both of her parents are Blue Liners and never miss a UAA hockey game. “It is pretty fun when they play the U of M Gophers, because I am an alum of both schools.” With permission from Seawolf Athletics, Maggie and her husband Joe got her parents a giant, illuminated Seawolf sign as a thank you gift when they got married.
What does her future hold? Since Maggie grew up in Anchorage, this is where her support system is. Her sister Cindy graduated with a nursing degree from UAA and her sister Lindsey graduated from UAF with an engineering degree. She has no intention of leaving. She says the long, dark winters don’t bother her too much. “Transitioning from school to work was hard, because during school you have several breaks during the day where you get outside to see the sun. My first office at Providence didn’t have a window and so I wouldn’t see the sun at all some days if I didn’t get outside.”
She has since moved into an office with a window, but still makes it a habit to go running with a group around University Lake on the lunch hour, to make sure she gets some fresh air and sunshine. She brings her Australian Blue Heeler, Abbey, along with her every day.
Maggie says she definitely wants to keep working with people. “I may hit my income limit fairly early, but there is no intellectual ceiling in this career, which is what I really like. I’m satisfied exactly where I am.”