Posted on May 12, 2022 by Amanda Cerreto

MAY 13, 2022 — Returning to pursue an undergraduate education after more than 10 years away is a daunting task. Add in a pandemic, a toddler, a newborn and a spouse who also works full-time, and it becomes a nearly impossible juggling act. Mark Miller took it in stride, however, and enrolled at UTSA two years ago to complete a Bachelor of Science in kinesiology through the College for Health, Community and Policy.

Miller arrived in San Antonio in search of change a couple years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged his hometown of New Orleans. After helping his mother rebuild her home from the hurricane's damage, he took off to San Antonio. Childhood family friends graciously welcomed him and helped Miller find some new roots.

"I was in my mid-20s at the time and I wound up in the restaurant business," Miller recalled.

"I have a couple of prerequisites left, but having met the requirements of my degree, I want to walk the stage in May."

After a year or two, he had worked his way up to manager, to kitchen manager and then to general manager.

While Miller was enrolled part-time in school, he took a semester off when he received the new general manager position.

“The next thing I know, seven years went by,” Miller said.

Those seven years weren't bad—far from it.

“I learned what true leadership is and isn't, made some lifelong friends with co-workers, and during that time, found my lovely wife with whom I now have two beautiful kids,” Miller said. “During my time as a general manager, my wife went to graduate school while working as a nurse.”

While Miller worked to support their family, his wife earned her graduate degree following a grueling course load and several hundred practicum hours. Once she was done, the couple decided it was his turn.

“We have a wonderful partnership where we really support each other,” Miller said.

Without hesitation, he started with some prerequisite courses at Alamo Colleges then enrolled at UTSA to complete his degree and work toward a career in physical therapy.

Miller faced several obstacles while pursuing his new career, included enrolling at UTSA smack in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, his son was in remote kindergarten, and he had a newborn daughter.

It was not lost on him that he was twice the age of many of his classmates. Only 30% of UTSA's undergraduate class in spring 2022 is between the ages of 23 and 49.

“With my time in the restaurant business, I had been in that type of environment for a while,” Miller said. “I also felt like in some ways I was at an advantage, because I knew what I was aiming for and was driven.”

Miller created connections with professors and classmates. At a time when most of his classmates were shy and cameras would tend to be off during class, his was one of the few whose camera was always on and he was always engaged. This participation opened up doors for him, such as a vice presidency position with the Pre-Physical Therapy Society at UTSA.

“The society was my social aspect of college,” Miller said. “We worked hard to get together during a time when everyone was so isolated.”

Miller led the society's volunteer initiatives, which allowed his classmates to safely make in-person connections. He also participated in general meetings and other events including workshops, baking socials, yoga classes and more.

“Physical therapy can be so competitive,” Miller said. “You need every edge you can find to stand out. Having business management experience, I felt that my leadership was strong, but I needed to relate it to PT. This was a good way to do that.”

The society also enabled him to make connections outside of UTSA, and it helped him land an internship that was life-changing.

“A guest speaker during our society's general meeting mentioned that one thing they love to see on applications was a student getting involved in research. This led me to search for a research opportunity at UT Health San Antonio,” Miller said. “I spent nearly two hours crafting this beautiful message about my passion for their cause and how I thought it could go along with my career path.”

After submitting the message on their website, immediately Miller was hit with an auto-reply rejection. They weren't accepting interns due to COVID-19.

He suspects, though, that his email must have gone to someone in the department, because about a month later, someone reached out to him with a recommendation for a closely matched opportunity.

“Dr. Daniel Hughes from the Institute of Health Promotion and Research at UT Health San Antonio asked me to join his lab after reading that email,” Miller said. “I've been working with him once a week, and it's been an awesome way to learn about research, contribute to an awesome cause and make some connections within a dream school of mine.”

Miller's experience in the lab has also opened his eyes to the other aspects of physical therapy. “I love that there's still so much to learn about the body's response to intervention, and that we have an opportunity to contribute to that,” Miller said.

While he is still aiming to work in a physical therapy outpatient setting, he is keeping his mind open for a way in the future to fuse practice with research.

“I see that to be very fulfilling,” Miller said. “Feeling like you can accomplish something by helping a patient in pain, but also help with the grand scale.”

Miller will graduate in May with his bachelor's in kinesiology, and he plans to apply to physical therapy schools when the application cycles open in July so he can start in 2023.

“I have a couple of prerequisites left, but having met the requirements of my degree, I want to walk the stage in May,” Miller said.

When he crosses the stage, he'll do so alongside thousands of other first-generation college graduates. Approximately 45% of the university's students will be the first in their families to earn a bachelor's degree, opening doors for themselves and their families.

As a first-generation student, Miller feels strongly about family connections and giving his parents the moment to see their son walk across the stage. Every step of the way, Miller has relied on family and friends and credits them with his successes.

“The awesome support from my family unit is what kept me motivated, wanting to make a better life for them and myself,” Miller said. “I had a lot of success in the restaurant industry, but the hours are really long and it's hard on a young family.”

“I want to try and make a better life so that I can be more present as a dad and husband,” Miller said. “I want to love my work, and work to live, but not live to work.”

The University of Texas at San Antonio is a Tier One research university and a Hispanic Serving Institution specializing in cyber, health, fundamental futures and social-economic transformation. The university embraces multicultural traditions and serves as a center for intellectual and creative resources as well as a catalyst for socioeconomic development and the commercialization of intellectual property. UTSA aspires to become a model for student success, a great public research university and an exemplar for strategic growth and innovative excellence.

— Amanda Cerreto