NU Declassified: The student becomes the professor

Sammi Boas, Senior Staffer



For some Northwestern professors, purple pride extends beyond the classroom. Across almost all of NU’s undergraduate schools, there are professors who attended the University as students — and even one who got her bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. here. In this episode of NU Declassified, we dive into what brought these professors back to their alma mater.


SAMMI BOAS: Do you ever think about how your professors were once students? They ate in dining halls, stressed about finals and tried to avoid awkward eye contact with strangers while walking to class. Some of them even made the trek from South Campus to North Campus. 

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SAMMI BOAS: Yeah, you heard that right. For some Northwestern professors, purple pride extends way beyond the classroom. Across almost all of NU’s undergraduate schools, there are professors who attended the University as students, ranging from undergraduates to Ph.D. candidates. 

SAMMI BOAS: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Sammi Boas. This is NU Declassified, a look into how Wildcats thrive and survive at Northwestern. Today, we’re talking with some of these professors about what brought them back to campus.


SAMMI BOAS: Medill Professor Ava Thompson Greenwell is in her 29th year of teaching at the journalism school. But it’s not her 29th year at NU — Greenwell came to Medill 42 years ago with the goal of becoming a journalist.  

AVA THOMPSON GREENWELL: For the most part, my course was really charted. You know, I got on the high school newspaper staff, majored in journalism as an undergrad, did the graduate program specifically in broadcast journalism and then did journalism for about eight years. 

SAMMI BOAS: After having her first child, Greenwell was looking for a more flexible career option. Attending conferences as a professional journalist, Greenwell kept running into a classmate from Medill who taught at NU. That classmate mentioned Medill had an opening. And the timing was right.

AVA THOMPSON GREENWELL: Talking to her, I realized that there was considerable flexibility in teaching at a university level that you don’t necessarily have as a day-to-day reporter. You know, when stories happen, when stories break, you’ve got to go, you know, even on the weekend, and you miss a lot of pivotal times and moments in your child’s life.

SAMMI BOAS: The flexibility NU offered professors came in handy later when Greenwell decided to get her Ph.D. in African American studies, looking to learn more about the Black experience and how it ties to journalism. Greenwell got her Ph.D. at NU while still teaching courses at Medill, but it was hectic. 

AVA THOMPSON GREENWELL: It was a juggling act. So most of my Ph.D. courses the first two years were in the afternoons. They were seminars that met once a week, and usually from say, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. And so what Medill did, they said, “Well, we’ll arrange it so that your classes are in the morning, mostly,” and they gave me the opportunity to reduce my teaching load so that I could take the courses and write the papers and do the research.

SAMMI BOAS: McCormick Professor Ping Guo also received his Ph.D. at NU. Guo is from China and pursued his undergraduate degree there, but he hoped to stay in the U.S. after getting his Ph.D. It didn’t all go to plan, at least not right away.

PING GUO: When I did my Ph.D. here, I looked for some academic jobs in the U.S. and I got some mutual interest. But they were basically middle of nowhere, and specifically the whole downtown, it’s a gas station. And I felt that was not what I’m looking for in my 20s, early 30s.

SAMMI BOAS: So, he taught as an assistant professor in Hong Kong. He gained independence and direction for his research, which he said is important as an engineer. But, it was unclear whether what he learned would transfer over when looking for a position back in the U.S.

PING GUO: The system is so different. In engineering, they really look at your funding record. What are your ability to attract external funding, to sustain your research program? Even if you’ll be successful in Hong Kong, but you have no experience in the U.S. So that’s why usually you see very little cross-country kind of movement. 

SAMMI BOAS: But after some time away, an opportunity popped up at NU, and Guo got some encouragement from his old department. The pieces fell into place, and Guo has been an assistant professor since 2018. He’s even teaching the same course he served as a teaching assistant for as a Ph.D. student.

PING GUO: When I came back, there was no transition. I just feel like I’m supposed to be. I mean if you ever been to Tech it’s a maze. And I don’t feel any lost. When I was back my first day, I felt like I was back to where I should belong to and felt just everything was familiar.

SAMMI BOAS: Communication Professor Jeremy Birnholtz, who studied Radio/Television/Film as an undergrad, didn’t spend much time away after studying at NU. In fact, he joined the staff right away, working as a part of the Medill on the Hill program in the late 90s.

JEREMY BIRNHOLTZ: At the time, because broadcast news equipment was heavy and very expensive, they actually had two full-time people who would shoot stories with the students. And so my first job out of school was as one of those photographers, shooting video stories, you know, on Capitol Hill, at the White House, all of that, which was really cool.

SAMMI BOAS: After that, Birnholtz worked building websites and went on to graduate school at the University of Michigan to study human-computer interaction. He then taught at Cornell University for more than five years before returning to NU to teach in 2012. Now, Birnholtz said he uses his experience as an NU undergraduate to drive some of his teaching.

JEREMY BIRNHOLTZ: I do try to draw on my experience in making some of the things that we talk about more relatable. So like, there’s a lecture where I talked about privacy. 

SAMMI BOAS: It reminded him that when he was a freshman, NU was using social security numbers as student ID numbers. 

JEREMY BIRNHOLTZ: And so it happened that going through some old stuff, I found my meal card, which was before you had Wildcards. You had an ID card and a meal card. And my meal card had my social security number, like straightaway right on it. And so I crossed it off, but then I took a picture of that and I use it in the slides and so the students see a picture of me with my address at NMQ. And it’s like, ‘Okay, what’s wrong with this ID card?’ So things like that.


SAMMI BOAS: History Professor Michael Allen came to NU as a graduate student in 1997 and left with a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in 2003. After finishing his dissertation, he got an offer for an assistant professor position from North Carolina State University. Five years later, as he approached tenure, he thought it was time to make a change. 

MICHAEL ALLEN: Once you get tenure, it can be more difficult to move. There are fewer jobs that come with tenure than those that are kind of in the assistant professor rank. And so I went back on the job market.

SAMMI BOAS: But when he saw an opening at NU, he said he wasn’t planning to apply for it —

MICHAEL ALLEN: Partly because it had never happened that somebody who had a Ph.D. from Northwestern had been hired onto the faculty in my department. And I just sort of thought it would be pointless and also sort of frowned upon.

SAMMI BOAS: Allen said that until the late 1960s and into the 1970s, it was common for elite universities, especially Ivies, to hire their own Ph.D. candidates to join their faculty. Many of these schools’ faculties were dominated by white Protestant men, excluding all other groups of people. Schools hiring their own students became associated with nepotism and exclusion.

MICHAEL ALLEN: I think for all kinds of good reasons that came to be considered problematic. And, you know, my discipline in history, and most others, moved away from doing that. And so Northwestern not being an Ivy League school, and always kind of being an aspirationally kind of Ivy League school, had often preferred to hire from Ivy League universities rather than its own students, but also had on top of that this idea that, as do most departments, that it’s better if you can hire from outside. 

SAMMI BOAS: But he interviewed for the position anyway and was surprised again when he got the job offer. 

MICHAEL ALLEN: I think the fact that I had spent five years at another university, that I was on the tenure track at that university, that I had sort of an independent professional life separate from Northwestern, made a difference. And I also think the fact that our department had grown significantly and diversified significantly since the 1970s meant that it was kind of confident enough to hire me.

SAMMI BOAS: Integrated Marketing Communications Professor Danielle Robinson Bell was drawn back to NU because of other changes the school was making in diversity. Bell was a Medill undergraduate who went to the Kellogg School of Management to get her MBA. As a student, Bell said her identity as a Black woman, as well as being from Georgia, were factors in her adjustment to life at NU. 

DANIELLE ROBINSON BELL: I have often felt like Northwestern had a ways to go and a lot of work to do as it related to making sure that all members of the Northwestern community, faculty, staff, students, alumni, felt like they belonged. 

SAMMI BOAS: After Kellogg, Bell worked at a branding agency in New York and taught as a part of the adjunct marketing faculty for multiple colleges there. At her 20-year reunion for Medill, she heard about open faculty positions. Her experience fit and the time was right.

DANIELLE ROBINSON BELL: Medill was at an interesting point in its history. At the time that I was hired, the school had not long before that appointed Dean Whitaker as head of the school and as an alum, as an alum of color, that meant a lot to me.

SAMMI BOAS: In addition to the appointment of Dean Charles Whitaker, Bell said she thought she could help support some of the new initiatives NU was implementing, which would allow her to feel supported in her career and support her students in a way she wasn’t as a student. 

DANIELLE ROBINSON BELL: Since I’ve been here, it’s all a work in progress. And I think progress, you know, being the keyword there, hasn’t been perfect, obviously. But I can’t imagine having a career in academia at any other institution right now. I think Northwestern and Medill are heading in the right direction and that’s meaningful.

SAMMI BOAS: When reflecting on his time as an undergrad versus now, Birnholtz said he thinks there’s more attention paid to undergraduates and the undergraduate experience.

JEREMY BIRNHOLTZ: One of my favorite examples is you know, Wildcat Welcome, which we just called New Student Week very creatively. But Wildcat Welcome, of course, at some point, there’s the March Through The Arch, right. Which they build up to be like this longstanding tradition. And it’s like, no, I’m sorry, The Arch was built my sophomore year. And nobody marched through it, certainly, in the four years that I was on campus, in the ’90s. And I don’t think for several years after that. But when I look at the experience now, there’s just a lot more structure and a lot more attention paid to things.


SAMMI BOAS: For some of the professors, NU has also become more than just the place where they work and went to school. For Allen and Greenwell, family ties have drawn them closer to NU.

MICHAEL ALLEN: My wife oversees fundraising for large portions of the University. So she’s often kind of organizing and attending alumni events, ranging from faculty lectures to theatre performances, to reunion or homecoming events, to attending Northwestern athletic events. And so, I will often go to those things kind of as her date, in addition to attending some of those things in my own capacity as a faculty member. 

AVA THOMPSON GREENWELL: I’ve raised three children who are now adults, during my nearly three-decade-long tenure at Medill. And it was always a great opportunity to also involve them. Occasionally, I would bring them to speakers and things that we would have on campus and connect them to the University, as well. And even my oldest daughter worked at the University in the Office of (Institutional) Diversity and Inclusion, up until recently. So there’s a lot of purple and white pride there.


SAMMI BOAS: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Sammi Boas. Thanks for listening to another episode of NU Declassified. This episode was reported and produced by me. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Lucia Barnum, the digital managing editors are Will Clark and Katrina Pham and the editor in chief is Jacob Fulton. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @BoasSamantha

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