The Potential of a Promise

Andrew Colson, Admissions Counselor & Program Manager of the UAB Birmingham Promise, The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB)

What is the Birmingham Promise and why does it matter?

When the Birmingham Promise Scholarship was first announced by the city of Birmingham, Alabama, in the fall of 2019, I was equally surprised and excited.  My surprise was due to the generosity of the scholarship: up to 4 years of tuition fully covered (after accounting for grants/merit-scholarships), applicable to any public 2- or 4-year college or university in Alabama, transferable between community colleges and universities.

My excitement stemmed from the realization of how many doors would now be open to graduates of the Birmingham City School system.  One of the key factors that contributes to any student’s college decision when determining best fit is affordability.  As we all know, the average tuition cost of an undergraduate degree program has gone up consistently in the past few decades, while the need for an undergraduate degree within our economy has increased along a similar pace.  The Birmingham City School system serves over 23,000 students, many of whom come from lower-middle class and impoverished households.  For many of these students, the cost of college is the primary barrier between them and obtaining an undergraduate degree.  With the introduction of the Birmingham Promise Scholarship, that financial barrier was greatly reduced and many of these students now have access to higher education opportunities that may otherwise be unattainable.

Taking it one step further — The UAB Birmingham Promise

In early 2020, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) became the first official academic partner school of the Birmingham Promise Scholarship, pledging a one-to-one match of the tuition scholarship for each student. However, UAB decided that its contributions to this cohort of students would not stop at the financial support.  Even before the pandemic became our reality, it was clear that the Promise cohort would be best invested in not only with monetary resources, but with additional student life and academic support. UAB specifically designed support that would ease students into the transition to college to help them feel supported and successful as they completed each semester at UAB. This idea resulted in the creation of the UAB Birmingham Promise, a series of programs and staff that are solely dedicated to this specific cohort of students’ success, support, and retention.

In terms of staff, I personally have had the honor of being the program manager for the UAB Birmingham Promise since its inception in early 2020.  As the program manager, I serve as a consistent point of contact for students from the time they are recruited to their graduation from UAB. I am able to offer assistance with student admission and financial aid, networking support with university and community partners, coordination of workshops and events, and serve as an instructor for their required First Year Experience (FYE) course.  This consistent point of contact offers students a sense of familiarity when dealing with a larger institution such as UAB by helping them feel more secure as they advance through the application process and their enrollment.

But perhaps the most exciting aspect of the UAB Birmingham Promise is its peer mentoring program. UAB partnered with the Birmingham Education Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that specifically works with Birmingham City School students and graduates in workforce and educational development. With the help of the Birmingham Education Foundation, we were able to recruit and hire 10 current UAB students who are also alumni of the BCS system to create the Promise Mentor Team. This team consists of students from varied backgrounds, majors, and campus organizations. The team is comprised of sophomores, juniors, and seniors who have demonstrated interest in giving back to the Birmingham community and supporting this cohort of their fellow BCS alumni.

The Promise Mentors for the 2020-2021 school year began their outreach to the incoming freshman cohort on June 1, 2020.  During the summer, Mentors would rotate to a new group of 5-7 Mentees each week so that each mentor could get to know each mentee by the start of the Fall semester.  Every 2-3 weeks, we would have larger cohort-wide meetings to play games and discuss topics related to the transition to college, encouraging the entire cohort to build a sense of community with each other.  While COVID-19 limited some of our initial plans for in-person meetings, our Mentors prevailed in making sure each student was involved and felt seen during an (for lack of a less-tired word) “unprecedented” summer vacation.

The Promise Mentor Team’s summer outreach culminated in the Virtual UAB Birmingham Promise Welcome Weekend in early August.  During this 4-day program that was developed by UAB and Birmingham Education Foundation staff, Promise Scholars and their parents met with UAB Faculty, advisors, support staff, student organizations, community partners, and the mayor of Birmingham to prepare them for what to expect as they began college. We also wanted to ensure students were familiar with not only the academic and student life resources available, but also with those specific people on campus they could turn to for support both on and off campus.  For their part, Promise Mentors led workshops that focused on character building, maximizing one’s student experience, and tips for avoiding academic and social pitfalls common to college freshmen.  It was an incredibly edifying experience for both the Promise Mentors and the Promise Scholars and set the tone for what the Fall semester would entail.

What the UAB Birmingham Promise has meant during the COVID-19 era

Promise Mentors were officially assigned their permanent Mentee pairing upon completion of the Welcome Weekend. These pairings were based on Mentor and Mentee feedback on their interactions over the summer. Mentors are required to meet with each of their assigned Mentees for a minimum of 1.5 hours each week. That communication can take place through any medium that either Mentor or Mentee prefers. They tend to enjoy texting, doing group video meetings, and socially distanced activities. What’s been remarkable about the mentor team is their ability to go beyond these expectations and enter in their own personal dynamic and interactions with each student in addition to the group as a whole. From a student engagement aspect, the Promise Mentor relationship has been successful as well. Mentors have completed game nights with their students, connecting them with organizations they are already involved with such as Greek life or Anime Club. Some have even gone long-boarding on campus, which is becoming more of a fad each year. From an academic aspect, Mentors took the liberty of creating group study times for the entire cohort every few weeks, especially as we drew closer to midterms and finals. The most amazing thing about this semester has been, even in the face of COVID-19 and the restrictions it places upon us, the energy of the mentors and their mentees’ engagement has not waned. The Mentors have been great advocates for their Mentees, often bringing to light barriers or issues that may not otherwise have been captured outside of this mentoring program. The COVID-19 pandemic has been an additional source of stress for already anxious first-year college students. I believe that without these Mentors, and without the Birmingham Promise, this specific cohort would be in far more dire straits and would be much less engaged.

The Birmingham Promise has great potential to change the face of education in the city of Birmingham and how UAB engages with its local community. But its lasting impact will come from the individual stories from both Promise Mentors and Promise Scholars engaged in the program. Each student has benefitted from connecting with one another whether they be Mentor or Mentee. As this program grows, I am personally excited to see scholars become Mentors, Mentors become leaders, and those leaders investing further into the Birmingham Promise to create the continuum of care that our local community and the global community need to succeed. The Birmingham Promise has done a wonderful job making college more accessible to students who traditionally experience financial barriers. However, it is the personal touches such as the Promise Mentor team, that will truly determine a student’s success and happiness while enrolled at their college. If we can continue to invest in these financial and personal supports, I am hopeful that we will see not only increased retention year to year for this cohort but also a higher level of engagement in the university and in the surrounding community.