Firsthand Accounts

First-generation students reflect on the support they found at UAB
Story by Brett Bralley • Photos by Andrea Mabry and Steve Wood
Photo of student Leahgrace Simons sitting in front of green backdrop
First-generation students reflect on the support they found at UAB
Story by Brett Bralley • Photos by Andrea Mabry and Steve Wood
“As a first-generation college student, I went into everything blind,” recalls Viral Patel. “There’s a fear of not knowing if you’re doing something right.”
But the Madison, Alabama, native was sure about one thing: UAB was the place for him. He realized that during a campus visit in his senior year of high school.
Patel credits UAB’s “openness and inclusivity” for giving him courage to step out of his comfort zone. The shy freshman has become a confident senior ready to translate his education in finance and medical industrial distribution into a health-care consulting career. Along the way, he served on the Green Team, helping to recruit future students; joined the Indian Cultural Association; formed tight-knit relationships with his advisors; landed an internship; and even observed a surgery to prepare for his career. He also was among the first to participate in the Blazer Hatchery and Hackathon—a new Collat School of Business program that challenges students to apply their ideas and innovation to real-world problems.
“I was able to grow personally, make new friends, and find my passion,” Patel says. “I have learned a lot about myself.”

Photo of Viral Patel against green backdrop and photo lightsViral Patel
First-generation college students like Patel are a growing community at UAB. In the Fall 2019 freshman class, more than 2,800 students identified as first generation—a 2 percent increase from 2018. The transition can be challenging for many who are pioneering a new path in their families. But the university is ready to help during every stage of their journey, says Paulette Patterson Dilworth, Ph.D., UAB’s vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion. “It’s important that those students know there is support for them—financially, socially, academically—whatever they might need,” she says.
For example, resources such as TRIO Academic Services and the Vulcan Materials Academic Success Center offer tutoring, advising, and study groups to help students stay on track to graduate. And academic advisors serve as advocates, guiding students through degree requirements and recommending them for scholarships.
UAB also provides the students with a unique set of mentors: “We invite first-generation faculty to mingle with first-generation students,” says Tracy Lyons, Ph.D., executive director of undergraduate student success and retention. She points to academic leaders like Pam Benoit, Ph.D., senior vice president of academic affairs and provost; Yuliang Zheng, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Computer Science; and Dilworth—all who were themselves first-generation college students. “Some students might think they are the only ones walking this path,” Lyons says. “But they can look at Dr. Zheng and think, ‘You’re first generation? Maybe I can make it there, too.’”
Patel’s advice for other first-generation students is simple: Get involved and find your place. “There really is something for everyone“ at UAB, he says. “Or you can even start your own thing. That’s what changed me—getting involved and finding what I am passionate about. And doing that furthers your connections and networking skills. Just explore your options.”

Photo of Leahgrace Simons against green backdrop and photo lightsLeahgrace Simons

Leahgrace Simons

Athens, Alabama • Class of 2020 • Graduated in 2018 with a public health bachelor's degree and now pursuing a public health master's degree

“When I stepped onto UAB’s campus for the first time, I was like, ‘Whoa, something here feels right.’ I was here during a class change, and I remember watching all different kinds of people walk onto the Campus Green. I was in awe.
“In my freshman biology class, I sat next to a group of people, and we found out all of us were first-generation students. We shared a lot of commonalities that connected us throughout our college experience. We’ve become lifelong friends.
“I’m interested in studying socioeconomic causes in health disparities. I want to learn the skills to empower families to make the best choices for their health care.”

Photo of Eboni Murdock against green backdrop and photo lightsEboni Murdock

Eboni Murdock

Long Beach, California • Class of 2019 • Biology major

“Being a first-generation student is about branching off—about being even better than the generations before me. It can be a challenge having questions and not knowing how to navigate the world around you, and you can’t go to your friends or family members.
“TRIO has been a big help with my college experience in general. I can ask my advisor questions, and they’ve provided me with resources I need and even helped set up opportunities for me to shadow physicians.
“I’m planning to get a master’s in multidisciplinary biomedical sciences, and then I want to go to medical school and study pediatrics or psychiatry.”

Photo of Jakorre Thornton against green backdrop and photo lightsJakorre Thornton

Jakorre Thornton

Birmingham, Alabama • Class of 2021 • History major

“TRIO is like my family here at UAB, and it has helped me a lot. I’m decent at writing papers, but the English tutors have helped me take my papers to another level. And I have a good relationship with my advisor. She understands my perspective and background.
“I want to be a history teacher and coach football when I graduate. I coach now at the Boys & Girls Club, and that drives me and inspires me to push forward.
“One thing a lot of people don’t think about are the financial difficulties some first-generation students face. For most students who are from homes with parents who have graduated college and have pretty decent jobs, they’re able to get financial support from their parents. I have to do that on my own.”

Photo of Lauren Lockhart against green backdrop and photo lightsLauren Lockhart

Lauren Lockhart

Bethlehem, Georgia • Class of 2021 • Individually designed major in peace, justice, and equality

“I was thrown into the deep end when choosing colleges. When I came to UAB’s campus, I fell in love with it. I’m passionate about peace, justice, and equality, and at UAB I’m able to design my own major to study those topics.
“Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid was a wild experience, but my undergraduate admissions counselor helped me every step of the way. In fact, she still helps me a lot.
“College has always been my plan. I’m doing this for my family. I want to show my parents that the sacrifices they made were all worth it.”
Published April 2020