After a 43-year hiatus, one UAB student found the strength to return to college and earn his degree

Jerry Jones illustrates resiliency and determination for people of all ages.


It was on July 3, 2009, when Jerry Jones’ life took a horrific turn.

Jones, 74, spent six weeks in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Acute Trauma Care Unit after falling from a ladder while working on his home.

“Everyone said I was a miracle because they didn’t think I was going to make it,” Jones said. “I was really close to death.”

During his six-week recovery in the UAB Trauma unit, Jones formed a friendship with his physician assistant, who suggested that he return to college one day and finish his degree.

“They always say you aren’t supposed to get attached to your patients, but after spending so much time, effort and mental energy on him, I was already drawn to Jerry,” said Lacey Bowen Golden, Jones’ physician assistant. “His optimism, perseverance and thankfulness for a second chance showed me more of his character. And as I watched him take full advantage of his second by mentoring, 5ks, bicycling and volunteering, a friendship soon formed.”

“He always talks about how thankful he is for the trauma team that gave him this opportunity, but I think he’s given more to us in return. He motivates us, encourages us and validates why we work so hard for our patients.”

“I thought about it for months — years — but never made a move until now,” Jones said. He did come back, and in August, Jones is expected to graduate with his bachelor’s degree from UAB’s College of Arts and Sciences. “I was her first patient after graduation, so completing my degree is my thank-you as a payback to her.”

An unexpected path

Jones started his collegiate career at Jefferson State Community College in 1974 and later transferred to UAB, in 1976. Due to employment and family obligations, Jones dropped out in 1991.

“I was burned out,” Jones said. “Between working 48 hours a week, taking care of my family and other life responsibilities, I had to drop out.”

It was not until 10 years after the ladder accident when Jones finalized his decision to return to college and earn his degree. Jones says he had a dream and failed to reach it, but this was his shot at obtaining that dream again.

“Jerry scheduled an appointment with me and stated that he wanted to earn his degree after all these years,” said Christopher Hubbard, UAB College of Arts and Sciences academic adviser. “I discussed the new general studies degree that allows students to choose two minors to make up their major requirements. I reviewed his credits and made a suggestion based on his previous credits.”

After a few classes were suggested, Hubbard met with Jones to share that he needed only four credit hours to graduate.

“He was nervous because college has changed over the years,” Hubbard said, “but I encouraged him to do this for himself, his wife and children, and for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.” 

A leap of faith

Jones needed very few courses to complete his Bachelor of General Studies degree requirements, but was faced with challenges he never encountered before as a student, says Catherine Danielou, the senior associate dean for Academic Affairs in UAB’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“He almost had to navigate UAB as a new student, as our learning environment has changed very much since he was last enrolled,” Danielou said.

Jones had never taken an online class in his life, and this was his first and last semester back — all so that he could finish his bachelor’s degree and graduate.

“Jerry’s May session Capstone experience plunged him into an online environment where he had to learn very quickly how to use our Canvas LMS, interact with his professors differently than he ever had before, learn various new technological tools and submit assignments in formats that he was never used to before,” Danielou said. 

Danielou says that, when Jones told her one day he had gone to Information Technology for help — and was going to go back for more — she told him to just go ask his grandchildren. “I thought that was funny,” Danielou said.

Alice Jackson, adjunct instructor for UAB’s Department of Art and Art History, says Jones was very upfront with her about this being his first online class.

“Jerry adapted quickly in the first four weeks,” Jackson said. “When I met with him during the second week of class, he had great questions about how to best tackle the information, readings and lectures, and I can tell through his work since then that he has figured out these details.”

Even though both of his courses are online — ARH 101, The Art Experience and CAS 400, General Studies Career Readiness Capstone Project — Jones wanted to make sure he also had a personal connection with his instructors.

“As an instructor who has taught primarily online for the last five years, I find that students rarely want to meet face to face,” Jackson said. “Jerry pretty much insisted we meet within the first two weeks of class. We met at Sterne Library and looked at responses he had turned in, the technology of the course and how best to tackle the material. It was refreshing to do this with an eager student.”

Jackson says the knowledge and travel Jones brings to discussions and responses provide a layer of “life experiences” obviously not common for traditional students five decades his junior.

“I always enjoy having nontraditional students in my online ARH 101 class, and Jerry is no exception,” Jackson said. “Just this week, he commented on how the artwork we are looking at brought back memories of his travel. That’s a wonderful, unintended outcome of ARH 101.”

Jones says he loves being back in school and having the opportunity to learn about new software and work on the highlights of his life through resume training.

“I think Jerry has appreciated learning and participating,” Danielou said. “In my class, it was very important to him to do all assignments on time and pass the class, which he did with brio. It’s very important to Jerry to find meaning in what he does. Having committed to coming back to UAB, he has found meaning in people and his classes; he met with his academic adviser and his professors, he is making good grades, and he finds meaning in learning.”

Finding purpose to continue

Jones, who also volunteers through UAB Volunteer Services, spends most of his days at Children’s of Alabama and The Kirklin Clinic, coming to the aid of patients by pushing them in their wheelchairs and gathering prayer requests for the pastoral care team.

Jones says his whole purpose is to assist people and to help others — to be a good Samaritan. He plans to continue his volunteer services upon his graduation.

“I can’t believe the appreciation that people have for me,” Jones said. “It’s important to me. Seeing so many positive responses I’m receiving on taking up this journey again is a blessing to me. I’m overwhelmed and overjoyed. Everyone is for it and are so excited for me.

“Through this process, I’ve learned that there are many people like me in the same boat,” Jones said. “Life happens, and people have to drop out. Most of these people are retirees, and I always recommend UAB to them. I’m going to take a vote if I should walk or not, and I believe it will be yes.”

So the journey that began at UAB in 1976 — with a slight 43-year detour — will come full circle in August, when Jones graduates with his Bachelor of General Studies degree.

“We are especially proud of his resiliency and accomplishments as a Blazer,” Danielou said.