Sara Ferguson is this year’s Hazel Phelps Jones Prize winner. A senior from Birmingham, Alabama, Sara is majoring in biology and minoring in the Randall Research Scholars program.
What has been your favorite experience?
Over the winter break of 2018, I chose to apply for the Beyond Bama service week in the Dominican Republic. This was my first opportunity to serve a community outside of the United States as well as an experience that pushed beyond the bounds of my comfort zone. We were the first group of students chosen by the University to collaborate with the organization Wine to Water in their efforts to fight the water crisis. The purpose of the week was initially to provide ceramic water filters to families in the rural areas of the Dominican Republic, but it led to a much more impactful experience in my life. My first role was to work with the production of the ceramic filters. As I was learning about the filters and their imminent need, I formed relationships with various Dominican workers at the factory. Their pride in their work and their efforts to serve their country were incredibly admirable. After learning how to assemble and utilize the filters, we conducted community pre-interviews to establish how the ceramic filters are facilitated. We met with community leaders about the specific needs of their community in efforts to gain an understanding of the best way to address these needs. Once those needs were identified, we met with members of each community to discuss how to care for and use their filters. In efforts to make a lasting impact, before the trip began we constructed and later implemented a lesson on the importance of clean water for both a specific program for children as well as a community-directed hygiene and sanitation program. We connected with a local elementary school in the same community we were distributing filters in to teach children why it is important to utilize clean water. After the filters were distributed and the lesson plans implemented, we traveled to a separate community whose filters were distributed the previous month to conduct follow-up reviews. During this time, I was able to enter each home and learn the different stories from each family utilizing the filters. We created deeper relationships as each family emphasized the impact that their filter had on their lives. Having a chance to work with this organization in the Dominican Republic was one of the best opportunities of my collegiate experience. It brought about tremendous growth as well as deepened my passion for service. It revealed my own privileges and established the responsibility that I have to advocate for and serve those around me.
What made you choose UA?
I actually started my collegiate search by purposefully avoiding The University of Alabama. I am a fourth-generation University of Alabama alumnus. I wanted to attend a college where I could create my own path and be a trailblazer, but I was worried I would not find that in Tuscaloosa with so much family history. I never toured campus and I was enrolled at another college when my mother convinced me to come to Bama Bound Orientation in 2016. After about 6 hours on campus, I dropped my enrollment and chose to come to UA. I immediately fell in love with the people and the opportunities that I found in that two-day orientation. My Avanti (orientation leader) explained how the vast amount of resources and the largeness of campus was actually to my advantage. “No two students walk the same exact path in their time here.” I saw the opportunity to reinvent myself and mold my reputation into whoever I wanted to be. There were no prejudices and no opinions of me before I came to campus, I was able to decide who I wanted people to see me as. I had the autonomy to take my own path and gain the independence I wanted. Looking back, I’d like to say that I accomplished exactly what I wanted while also keeping a four-generation tradition intact.
What advice would you give to incoming students?
My advice to the class of 2024 would be to take time away from the “checking all the boxes” mentality. Truly make sure that you are investing your time in both people and organizations that you are passionate about and that align with your core values. It is easy to get caught in the rat race of college and success, but ultimately the end is unsatisfying if you aren’t happy. You want to walk away from The University of Alabama feeling accomplished and proud, but not at the expense of losing who you really are.