Nearly 20 years ago, a crowd gathered for a vigil in the parking lot of the Thomas & Mack Center.
A day after the Sept. 11 attacks, with a nation gripped in grief and horror, Las Vegans came together at building that had been the fountainhead of so much civic happiness. In those first days after the attacks, life moved underwater — a surreal displacement of time and place when even the sounds of daily life were distorted, replaced by a steady drone of CNN, NBC, or CBS. It left Americans groping for any kind of connection to anchor themselves.
In that moment then-Las Vegas Sun photographer Ethan Miller snapped a picture of 3-year-old Alana Milawski perched on her father, Craig's, shoulders. Arms wide, American flag unfurled in her tiny right fist.
The image blazed across the wires and was selected as the cover image for Newsweek's commemorative Sept. 11 issue, "The Spirit of America."
Milawski never shed those Las Vegas roots, attending CCSD schools and then following in older sister Marissa's footsteps and enrolling at UNLV. On Friday, under a mortarboard decorated with characters and motifs from the anime series Sailor Moon, she graduates with her bachelor's degree in secondary education in social studies.
Soon, she hopes to be leading high school classes of her own.
"Teaching world history at a high school locally would be a dream for me,” Milawski said. “I originally discovered my passion for teaching, and for teaching history in particular, in my world history class at Palo Verde High School. Once I got into [UNLV], I fell more in love with history and I joined the teaching program and I found a way to combine them both."
Over the years, Miller and the Milawski family grew close. He was back photographing her again at UNLV's spring 2021 commencement — this time as an adopted uncle, as Alana calls him. It's a fitting capstone to have the man who tied Milawski to history to see her start her journey imparting the subject to others.
Being a small piece of the historical record has shaped the way Milawski will teach it.
"It already has affected the approach to teaching history in that my goal, at least for my classroom, is to see my students as time travelers," she said. "We will approach the different areas of history as if we were in that area of history themselves."
During her first practicum at Durango High School, Milawski led an exercise covering the Cuban Missile Crisis where students were placed in a scenario where they had received a letter from President John F. Kennedy seeking their advice. They were allowed to use primary and secondary sources from the time — with no benefit of hindsight — to shape their advice to the president.
"The most revealing thing was how interested the students were in having that level of engagement with the (source) material and acting as if they were in that time," she said. "It allowed them to have more fun with the activity and that they didn't have to worry as much about what maybe current beliefs, perceptions, and knowledge. They can approach it more in sort of a role-playing scenario that enables them to have more freedom and more fun with it."
After teaching high school for a period of time, Milawski intends to pursue a master's and doctorate with the goal of one day teaching history at the university level. She wants to focus on the Meiji Restoration period of Japanese history, drawn into that period and place by a 2018 trip to Japan with Marissa.
Milawski doesn't know yet if there will be any kind of ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the attacks — she participated in a 10-year anniversary held by the city in 2011 — or if the photo will resurface again this fall.
Either way, Milawski is honored to have played her part in the story of Sept. 11. When the time comes for her to teach university classes of her own, she hopes it will be here at UNLV; completing her relationship with history at the same place it started.