Student loses her family; UAB steps in and becomes just that

A student comes to UAB with a small-town outlook, leaves with a global perspective.

A newly widowed woman sat crying alone on a recent night and University of Alabama at Birmingham senior Stephanie Wilkins sat down beside her to talk.

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Wilkins works as a patient care assistant in UAB’s Emergency Department. As she talked to the woman, her mind filled with her own memories of loss. The 24-year-old Florence native’s father died of congestive heart failure during her junior year in high school; then, her mother passed away during her junior year in college. As an only child, the loss was almost too great, she says.

Carrying a full load as a double major in biology and psychology, Wilkins considered taking a break from college – at least temporarily. But UAB faculty, staff and students embraced her and helped her complete her educational journey, she says. On Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011, she will receive her undergraduate degree with plans of remaining at UAB and enrolling in the Surgical Physician Assistant program.

“UAB became a place of safety,” she says. “I feel like I owe a lot to the school.”

On that night in the ED, Wilkins gladly returned the favor to the widow. “If anything good comes out of this it is that I don’t have empathy for people anymore,” she says. “It’s more than that; I have heartfelt compassion for them.”

“Stephanie has that spark inside that keeps her going even through adversity,” says Nate Wade, academic advisor in the UAB Department of Biology. The university offers an assortment of personal and academic counseling services for students who experience hardship during their college career. Many, Wade says, find it difficult to recover and struggle to finish college.

Wilkins came to UAB on the heels of having lost her beloved dad. She remembers how he loved singing the blues while driving in his car, going on walks, taking picnics and dancing with his daughter. His death was unexpected.

“All of a sudden it was over,” she says.

Wilkins entered UAB having lived her whole life in a small town. She went to school with the same 50 students from kindergarten up. They all looked alike, worshipped alike and came from the same socio-economic background. Coming to UAB, with its diverse population, was like entering a different world, she says.

Wilkins remembers the day she moved into Blazer Hall. Feeling a bit overwhelmed, she looked out the window and called out to her mom and said, “You’re coming back to get me, right?”

“I was this little fish in the huge group of people,” she says.

But that’s what her parents wanted, she says. They wanted her to be exposed to diversity, get a good education and feel as if she were among a world of siblings.

“I learned more my freshman year than I have learned my entire life,” she says, musing about the first time she made spring rolls and joining Alpha Gamma Delta sorority where she met “some of my greatest friends.”

During the next few years, Wilkins’s mother was her rock. She was the one she called when she had an exam or just wanted to chat. Her mother would give her advice on all sorts of things, including how not to act awkward when a guy tries to hold your hand.

Then, in 2009, her mother died suddenly from complications of hepatitis C.

“Getting out of bed was the hardest thing for me to do,” Wilkins says. “Initially I didn’t think I could do it; I had so much anxiety. I depended on my mother a lot. Taking her out of the picture was a hard thing.”

But her advisors, including Hadyn Swecker, who “was a huge support,” made sure she stayed on track, she says. She also credits her grandfather, Coleman Powell, for giving her undying love and support. Today, she feels strengthened to carry on in honor of her parents.

“It is going to be fine,” Wilkins says of her future and Saturday’s graduation. “My parents would be very pleased. It is sad that they are not going to be there, but the rest of my family will be there” – biological and otherwise.

“I’ll be there,” Wade says of Saturday’s commencement, “and be very proud to see her walk across the stage.”

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