Online learning during the pandemic leads student to health care administration degree

When Alicia Cherry experienced what she felt was an academic failure, a Google search led her to UAB and changed the course of her academic career and life.
Written by: Anna Franks
Media contact: Adam Pope

inside online student alicia for rachel 220914 003 213Alicia Cherry
Photography: Andrea Mabry
Dedicating the time and attention required to earn an undergraduate degree is no easy feat. Those who reach the finish line have one thing in common: They know their “why.” They know the one, meaningful-to-them reason that they must finish their degree.

Sometimes the “why” can be as simple as knowing that the people closest to someone are cheering them on. For Alicia Cherry, who is graduating from the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s online Bachelor of Health Care Management program through the School of Health Professions in fall 2022, one person kept her going when she met an unexpected dead end in her academic journey.

Doors closing lead to doors opening

Cherry’s grandmother — whom she called “Granny” — called her one day and coaxed her to get out of bed during a difficult season in Cherry’s life.

She had just failed her third semester of nursing school at a local community college and had not seen the moment coming. Priding herself on being a hard worker — even taking college classes while she was still in high school to get ahead — she had a passion for health care and had dreamed of being a nurse for years. What was once a clear vision of her future suddenly vanished, leaving her feeling lost and discouraged.

Amid the confusion, more encouraging words came from Granny.

“My grandma said, ‘Knowing you, you’re just like your mom. You’re going to stay in school. If anything, just take off a semester,’” Cherry recalled. “I heeded her advice and took off the following spring semester and asked myself, ‘What else? What do I actually want to do?’”

Cherry paused to do the hard work of charting a new career path. Knowing she would need to be smart about her school choice, need to hold a steady job and keep paying the bills, she consulted family and friends about options; an aunt suggested she check out the health administration field.

An internet search led her to UAB, the university just an hour from her hometown of Jasper, Alabama. She learned that UAB had a Health Care Management program, where she could earn her degree in person or 100 percent online. This was attractive to Cherry as the COVID-19 pandemic began circulating.

As the world around her halted, Cherry realized that pursuing her degree 100 percent online meant that even a pandemic could not stop her from crossing the finish line and meant she could keep a full-time job as well.

After a jubilant, over-the-phone celebration upon acceptance to UAB, Granny shared words of wisdom that Cherry has lived by since: “What’s gonna be for you will be for you.”

Becoming a Blazer

One of Cherry’s first classes was with Donna Herrin-Griffith, executive-in-residence in the Department of Health Services Administration. Griffith arranged a virtual call with Cherry and a classmate to get acquainted in the online classroom setting, and it turned out the classmate had also left nursing school to pursue health care management.

Cherry recalled Griffith’s support over the virtual call that day.

1203358560247531.Jdch7st5JiKQy0J1QSgG height640Photography: Andrea Mabry“She told us, ‘I just want you to know it’s OK to hit that rough pass,’” Cherry said. “‘Who knows? You may eventually go back into nursing. Or maybe it just wasn’t for you.’”

Granny’s words came back to her instantly, stating, “It was just like a ‘ding’ instantly went off, and I knew this was really for me.”

Her courses continued to confirm her choice. She learned that health care leaders can work in a variety of settings, such as long-term care facilities, addiction clinics, occupational therapy facilities and more. She could work locally or travel. She could get a master’s degree and work her way up even to CEO of a hospital one day. “The options are endless for me.”

On the heels of graduation, Cherry has already been contacted by recruiters inviting her to apply to their companies and has been afforded opportunities like internships at a local addiction clinic to showcase her experience. Having the chance to finish her education virtually has set Cherry up for a future full of success.

She plans to walk at graduation, saying, “It’s a big accomplishment. I don’t want to be tele-prompted.”

However, there will be one special person missing when Cherry takes the stage at Bartow Arena. In February 2022, her Granny was diagnosed with late-stage cancer, and passed away less than two months later.

Just as Granny met her with uplifting words when she was at her lowest, Cherry is determined to serve others in their time of need. As she presses forward with hope and anticipation, she says of Granny, “I know she’s shining down on me.”