UAB Graduation Spans Two Generations

By Rosalind Fournier

Hector DeSimone (right) and his oldest son, James, earned diplomas from UAB on the same day last December.

Hector and Melanie DeSimone believe in bonding. In addition to homeschooling their four children, the DeSimones have done nearly everything together. They've even made attending college a family affair. Hector and his oldest son, James, performed a father-son act at UAB’s fall graduation in December, with Hector earning his master’s degree in engineering, and James receiving his undergraduate degree in biology a few hours later.

The DeSimone-UAB connection goes deeper. Melanie graduated from the university in 1985 with degrees in political science and psychology. The couple’s daughter Fiona, a history major and secondary education minor, graduated in 2008 and is currently teaching in the Tuscaloosa area. Dominic is now a sophomore on campus, pursuing a double major in political science and public relations; the youngest, Julian, is set to begin his studies in the fall.

Hector DeSimone, an architect in UAB’s Design Build Services group, hadn’t originally planned to continue his own education. But he and Melanie always encouraged their children to pursue graduate degrees after college, and it dawned on him that maybe he should take his own advice.

Back to School

“After talking to my daughter about it,” Hector says, “I started to challenge myself.” He began pursuing his engineering master’s degree in fall 2008—a few decades after earning his undergraduate degree in architectural engineering from Pennsylvania State University.

There have been a few changes since then, Hector notes. “When I went to school, we didn’t have calculators; we had slide rules.” And the computer on his desk at work can manipulate far more data than the room-sized mainframe he used as a student in the late 1960s. Nevertheless, the fundamentals of his field remain unchanged, Hector says, which meant he always felt comfortable in the classroom. “Technology modifies and improves things, but the principles are the same as they’ve always been.”

The toughest part about returning to college, “after getting used to sitting in the classroom again,” turned out to be finding balance between studying, family, work, his private practice, and church responsibilities, Hector says. “I didn’t have the luxury of pulling ‘all-nighters’ to finish assignments or cram for tests. The tests themselves were also something I had to get used to; it was a bit intimidating to get graded again.”

A Special Surprise

Busy schedules kept Hector and James from spending much time together on campus, but they did get to share thoughts on schoolwork as they made the 47-mile daily commute from their Bibb County home. One thing James didn’t mention, however, was that he was planning a surprise of his own. Although he was originally slated to graduate in May 2010, James doubled his courseload to put himself on track to earn his degree a semester early—at the same time as his father.

The DeSimone family, clockwise from top: James, Fiona, Julian, Dominic, Melanie, and Hector

“I didn’t tell anybody at first, because I wanted to make sure I could pull it off,” says James, who will begin veterinary school this fall. But as the months crept on toward December and it was clear he would make it, James sprung the news.

While his parents were understandably ecstatic, James says it wasn’t until graduation day that he fully appreciated the magnitude of the moment. “When he was walking back from the stage, I pulled out my phone to take a picture,” James recalls. “A professor sitting behind me said, ‘Is that your dad? That’s neat.’ That’s when it really sunk in.”

As for Hector, he was delighted from the first time he learned what James had engineered. “I thought, what a privilege that is,” Hector says. “How many fathers get to experience something like that?”