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The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

UA graduate creates cancer memorial scholarship in honor of late mother

Courtesy of Nick Tolbert
Nick Tolbert poses with family at graduation while holding a file containing information about the Ellen Tolbert Memorial Endowed Scholarship. Pictured from left to right are Kelly Tolbert (uncle), Evan Tolbert (father), Sally Peacock (fiance), Nick Tolbert, Trent Tolbert (brother), Linda Bales (maternal grandmother) and Nancy Tolbert (paternal grandmother).

A recent UA graduate has started an endowed scholarship in memory of his mother, who died of cancer in 2017. Beginning in fall 2025, The Ellen Tolbert Memorial Endowed Scholarship will support one student a year who has lost a parent to cancer, with priority going to students from Jefferson County.

Nick Tolbert was in elementary school in 2014 when his mother, Ellen, received her diagnosis of stage four colon cancer.

“I remember the day I found out she got diagnosed,” said Tolbert, who graduated from the University in spring 2024 after majoring in philosophy and political science. The day he received the news, he was attending an annual bonfire put on by his hometown of Gardendale, Alabama, to recognize the city’s football teams. 

Ellen Tolbert was born Aug. 9, 1972, in Birmingham and worked a job at State Farm for over 20 years. Despite not completing college, she was a massive Alabama fan throughout her life.

In 1993, she married Evan Tolbert, with whom she had two boys: Trent and Nick. 

According to Nick Tolbert, he couldn’t have asked for better parents. He said his mom was one of the funniest people one would ever meet. 

“Even near the end, she would be hilarious. … Always had a great spirit about her. But it was a long battle,” Tolbert said.

A young Nick Tolbert visits his mother, Ellen, at the hospital in late 2014. When her son was in middle school, he nearly got suspended for missing school frequently to visit her in the hospital. (Courtesy of Nick Tolbert)

On Jan. 27, 2017, Tolbert was sitting in his ninth grade computer science class when his grandmother checked him out to tell him the news of his mother’s death. 

Over seven years after her daughter’s death, Linda Bales, Nick Tolbert’s grandmother, received a surprise from her grandson. At his graduation, he handed her a folder that read on the front “Ellen Tolbert Memorial Endowed Scholarship.”

“He asked me to read it out, and I saw it, and I just started tearing up,” Bales said, her voice becoming more strained as she recalled the emotional weight of the event. “It was such a surprise that he would even think about doing something like that to honor his mother.”

The endowment has been about a year in the making. Tolbert said he wanted a way to both give back to the UA community and honor his mother, and eventually he decided to establish a scholarship. The process proved daunting.

“I knew nothing about creating a scholarship,” he said. “I certainly didn’t have the money myself to do it.” 

Despite initially being intimidated by the process, Tolbert said the support of members of the UA community, including UA administration, alumni, the Blackburn Institute and Greek organizations, helped make the scholarship a reality. 

Their efforts allowed the scholarship fund to reach the $25,000 required for endowment last week, but Tolbert projects the total will surpass $35,000 after the Jefferson County chapter of the National Alumni Association finalizes its donation in a few months.

Associate Vice President for Alumni Affairs Jimmy Warren said the Jefferson County chapter will match UA-themed car tag sales made until June 15. Between 50% and 100% of the total sales will be matched to support the Ellen Tolbert Memorial Endowed Scholarship.

Those interested in supporting the Ellen Tolbert Memorial Endowed Scholarship can purchase a UA car tag before June 15 or donate directly to the fund online.

“Donating or promoting it’s not going to help knowing that a family member has succumbed to cancer, but it might give a student hope that they would be able to fulfill a dream of going to school because of family situation,” Bales said.

Warren said that because this is an endowed scholarship, the University must invest the principal amount raised for over a year before it can begin rendering interest payments in the form of scholarships to students.

“It’s rather remarkable that a recent grad has gone out and raised enough money to endow a scholarship,” Warren said.

A young Nick Tolbert (left) poses with his mother (center) and his older brother, Trent (right). (Courtesy of Nick Tolbert)

Tolbert hopes the scholarship can help alleviate the financial burden put on students who lose a parent to cancer.

Tolbert said that while there’s the emotional toll of losing a parent to cope with, students also often lose half of their family’s income, even as college is “already expensive enough” for most people. Bales added that the high medical bills only exacerbate the costs of college.

These students also must deal with the emotional hardship of being unable to have a parent experience the highs and lows of college with them, which many take for granted, Tolbert said.

“I think a lot of students struggle in the smallest ways,” he said. “If they failed an exam, had a bad breakup, they just feel lonely some night, and they want to call their mom … that’s just not there.”

Getting through college without his mother despite the challenges facing him, like being a first-generation student from a humble background, caused his perspective to change.

“I think it can be daunting, but often kind of felt like, well, I went through this … so really, what can be worse?” Tolbert said.

He has also gained special sympathy for those who also lost a parent to cancer, and students have reached out to him for support with similar struggles.

Tolbert said he hopes the scholarship has a lasting legacy for UA students while also honoring his mother.

“No matter who you are, what your background is, and what battles you may have gone through, you deserve an education just as much as anyone else, and there is a massive UA community there to support you,” Tolbert wrote. “While she may have never had the opportunity to attend UA, the community nonetheless has supported me, her son, in thousands of ways, and this is my way of helping repay that debt and allowing her memory as a fighter to live on.”

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