Letter from Opinions Editor: Make Alabama your sweet home


CW/ Autumn Williams

Justin McCleskey, Opinions Editor

I should admit that I stumbled into The University of Alabama out of sheer circumstance. I did well in my high school classes and learned to enjoy research from debate, so I assumed academia would be the next logical step. As a first-generation college student whose parents were Auburn fans, it’s safe to say The University of Alabama was not initially on my radar.

Participating in Boys State my junior year of high school, I spent a week on Alabama’s campus and began to familiarize myself with Tuscaloosa. There, I applied to UA Early College to get some gen-ed courses out of the way. Those classes were enough to encourage me to apply, and an invitation to the Blount Scholars Program motivated me to attend.

My parents begrudgingly cast away their Auburn bias for a few days to celebrate. I still notice them pulling for Auburn in the Iron Bowl, but the house has much more Alabama memorabilia than I ever bought. 

I would only be moving two hours away from my home in Trinity, Alabama, but starting college would be a unique experience that I struggled to find advice on. Listening to Sweet Home Alabama as I took the Tuscaloosa-Coaling exit from I-59, I was excited for the new chapter. The University of Alabama would be a foreign land, but it presented opportunities to make it my own.

I started my college education about as naively as possible. I was never concerned about the difficulty of classes because I assumed they would heavily resemble high school. That assumption was wrong, but I learned to manage. My initial concerns revolved around finding my community and aspirations. This focus was surprisingly beneficial, and I continue to emphasize finding niche pieces of fun in everything I do.

From an aspirational perspective, I made a lucky guess picking political science. Debate fostered an interest in political theory, so I declared it as my concentration without knowing anything more about what it would entail. These classes taught me which subjects I enjoyed, like theories of national identity and religion in war. While they were abstractly interesting and created a framework for advocacy, I began to realize these classes were not my direct aspiration.

With a slight interest in environmental advocacy, I found myself in the lecture halls of several geology courses. Most geology research and work positions did not seem directly appealing, but the information seemed especially beneficial to environmental policy. 

Intent to learn more, I began working for two labs in the department. These labs had me travel to some of Alabama’s most interesting geological environments, like Mobile, Sylacauga and Cathedral Caverns. These experiences were integral and taught useful skills, but I was a long way from completing a degree in geology and saw other routes to reach my aspirations. 

Rethinking my goals, I completed my bachelor’s degree in political science to begin master’s classes in public administration. My previous education covered a variety of interests, but it taught me to synthesize them in public administration. This degree would give me a general skill set that I could apply to any field of advocacy and work, but it would also allow me to test different policy areas that I found interesting.

I began interning with the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice to advocate for better criminal justice policies in the state. I found an interest in researching Alabama’s Department of Corrections, and learned it brings individuals of all specializations together to advocate for a better system. 

Along the way, I met Alabama Appleseed’s community organizer, Dana Sweeney, whose story struck a nerve. His introduction post for Alabama Appleseed noted that he was initially intent to leave the South, but learned that “no place changes without people committed to changing it.” I adopted that line of thinking, keeping my social and aspirational roots to make Alabama what he called a “Sweet Home for Everyone.”

From an aspirational perspective, I learned to enjoy whatever route comes and the odd journeys it brings along the way. Rethinking goals and being willing to enter the unknown brings rewarding experiences, whether they fully come to fruition or not. Depth of education may be the most beneficial to career prospects, but a breadth of subjects are surprisingly interconnected and informative.

Socially, I also entered college rather naively. Despite living in the state, only two other people from my graduating class attended The University of Alabama, so I would have to start from scratch. I began making friends in my classes and through Blount Hall, but I also began trying to find groups with similar career goals and aspirations.

I remember hearing about Greek life and asking my parents what it was. My father explained it as a “friend group that throws parties,” something he had learned from going to several fraternity parties at Auburn as a teen. I was fully initiated into a Greek fraternity before I realized what all it actually encompassed. While I am no longer an active member, Greek life exposed me to individuals I would have never spoken with otherwise, allowing me to discover which communities were a home for me.

My time in Greek life also exposed me to the Machine, a “not-so-secret” authoritarian hate group comprised of Greek houses across campus. This encouraged me to run for SGA Senate and fight for fair elections. While this decision would lose some Greek friends, it also brought some of my closest friends who shared common goals and interests with me. It also taught me how to mediate social differences to make Alabama a “Sweet Home for Everyone.”

I learned that social circles don’t have to have much in common to be beneficial. Even since leaving my active status in Greek life, I remain friends with several people in my old fraternity and gained significant insight from those relationships. Finding your home at The University of Alabama takes time, but each step is one in the right direction. 

I still play Sweet Home Alabama every time I take the Tuscaloosa-Coaling exit. The GPS tells me it’s not the fastest way anymore, but direction matters more than speed. It may take a while to find your niche at The University of Alabama, but there’s a sweet home here for everyone if you take the time to make it.