UAB students come in undecided, leave focused and with purpose

Graduating seniors move on to careers that they say could have only been discovered while at UAB.

Four years ago, a “hippie” from Springville and a free-willing farm girl from Newburg, Md., set foot on the University of Alabama at Birmingham campus, unsure what they wanted to do with their lives. On May 7, 2011, they will receive undergraduate degrees and leave school with something they didn’t expect to find — purpose.

For many students undecided about their future, UAB is the place they find direction. Such is the case for graduating seniors Grace Benton and Anna McCown.

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Grace Benton. Download image.

Benton described herself as a “snot-nosed 18-year-old who skated into college.” Today, she is an international scholar planning her third trip to the Middle East this summer. Benton will use her passion for Arabic culture to create education-planning curricula that can be used by students worldwide.

McCown, “the hippie kid in high school,” first enrolled in another college but never quite fit in, she said. When she read UAB’s course guide and discovered anthropology, she headed here. Today, McCown plans to fight hunger in food-deserted areas by teaching others how to grow healthy, sustainable foods.

Both students say they will leave their alma mater as new women with careers UAB helped them discover.

The farm girl turned international scholar

Benton, a brown-eyed 21-year-old, grew up the only child of hippie parents on an organic vegetable farm. She was surrounded by 80 varieties of vegetables from lettuce to bok choy and played among ducks, chickens and her five dogs.

Years later, her family moved to Mobile, Ala., and Benton decided on a whim to attend UAB. “I just said, ‘Let me go to a medium-size state school.’”

When she arrived on campus she was transformed, she said, by the diverse student body and endless options for study and involvement. She got involved in the University Honors Program, Trailblazers and International Mentors and felt a part of “a family unit,” she said.

Benton majored in international studies and randomly decided to take some Arabic courses, she said. “That snowballed into this interest in the culture, and I didn’t look back,” she said.

She created an individually designed minor in Arabic studies, the first student on campus to do so. After her freshman year, she went on a study-away trip to Tunisia where she studied the language, culture and participated in service projects with 300 of Tunisia’s best English-language college students.

“Every time I go to the Middle East, you have to pry me away,” she said.

After graduation, Benton will head to Jordan on a state-funded critical languages scholarship for an intensive Arabic study program. After that, she plans to attend graduate school at either the University of Texas at Austin or the University of Chicago. Ultimately, Benton plans to design educational lesson plans for students with an interest in international study.

“I am so glad I landed at UAB,” she said. “Coming here shaped where I am headed and helped me translate these lofty, nebulous ideas into something tangible.”

Missionary turned peacemaking gardener

Growing up, McCown’s mother called her the “peacemaker.” She was always the one settling squabbles between her siblings.

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Anna McCown. Download image.

The laid-back 22-year-old thought her passion for peace would lead her to be a missionary and teach Bible stories in the jungle. “All I knew was that I wanted to change the world,” she said. When McCown got to UAB, she discovered that changing the world, for her, meant joining the fight against hunger.

McCown majored in anthropology and created an individually designed minor in peace studies. She learned about social justice, education and food-security issues. She even awakened an interest in the topic on campus.

McCown went to Fiji for a month on a study-away assignment. She lived with the indigenous people on a tiny island, and together they ate what they caught and grew. Now she wants to help people in the United States grow their own food and make a dent in the hunger problem.

“Many problems we have in society, like hunger, don’t have to exist,” she said. ‘We can do something about it.”

While taking an ethnographic filmmaking class, McCown shot a film about a community garden located in West End, an urban area known for blight and crime. She was so enthralled with the residents’ commitment to tending their garden that she and her roommate moved into a house in the neighborhood.

At first, McCown’s presence raised eyebrows, she said. “They thought we were these white hipsters.” But the folks quickly embraced the students into their community, especially when they saw how McCown and the others worked to make the area a better place.

After graduation, McCown plans to participate in a joint graduate program in anthropology by UAB and the University of Alabama. She plans to be a permaculture designer and instructor and teach people to make sustainable communities that reduce their reliance on industrial systems that affect the Earth's ecosystems.

For McCown, UAB will always be the place where she found herself. It’s not only her alma mater, but “the place where my mind was cracked wide open,” she said.

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