By Jamon Smith
When Gadsden native Kiari Kinnie walks across The University of Alabama’s commencement stage this May to receive her bachelor’s degree in nursing with summa cum laude honors, she’ll leave behind four of the most challenging and transformative years of her life.
Kinnie, 22, is a first-generation college student and the third oldest of eight children. She grew up living in three different households – her mom’s, dad’s and grandmother’s.
“It was a family effort,” she said. “Whoever was the most stable at the time I lived with, spending a few years with each. They really did the best that they could in the situation that they were in.
“It built me up to know what I needed to do to not put Karson or any future children in the same situation.”
Karson is Kinnie’s 3-year-old son. She got pregnant with him her freshman year at UA, had him during winter break and came back to school the next semester.
Since then, she’s been a full-time mom, full-time student and full-time waitress/occasional cook at Waffle House, a company she’s worked for since 11th grade at Gadsden City High School.
Kinnie said it wasn’t until she had Karson that she became truly motivated to do well in school and beyond. Before his birth, she says she was just an “average student” with a 3.5 GPA.
Kinnie, who now has a 4.0 GPA, said when she came to UA she received support from Student Services and those who gave her scholarships. That motivated Kinnie to not let down her son, family and scholarship providers.
“I had to stand out for Karson and give him someone to look up to,” she said. “My mentality was ‘I am not responsible for myself anymore, and I have someone else’s life in my hands.’ I wanted to set him up so his path to success wouldn’t be as difficult as mine, so I decided to work my butt off.”
Kinnie has received three academic scholarships – the Ingram Lee Scholarship, the Jack and Lois Green Scholarship and the James Searcy Snow Scholarship. She’s also been on the President’s List nearly every semester.
When considering what university to attend during her senior year of high school, she chose UA “hands down” once she visited the campus.
“I absolutely fell in love with the atmosphere of the campus,” she said. “Once I met people, I knew this was where I belonged.
“I made a fantastic choice. After spending four years here, I know there’s nowhere else where I could have prospered like I have.” Kiari Kinnie, UA summa cum laude nursing degree candidate
While the birth of her son during her freshman year was the first major life-changing event she experienced in school, the second occurred last May when she took a 12-day medical mission trip with the Capstone College of Nursing to Zambia in southern Africa.
“I received a UA Community Affairs International Study Away Scholarship that funded my medical mission trip to Zambia, which was a dream come true,” Kinnie said. “When you live in poverty growing up in a bad neighborhood and you see that there are people who can’t even afford their next meal or to treat their sickness, it makes you learn to appreciate what you have.
“We held free medical clinics for the people. That trip to Africa just set the tone of the rest of my life. I gained a new appreciation for how blessed I am with my education, my needs being provided and for having people to support me because everybody doesn’t have that.”
She said she plans on taking a medical mission trip annually and taking Karson with her to expose him to different cultures.
Kinnie’s family is obviously very proud of her, but she tells them not to be. Not yet.
“I tell my parents don’t say you’re proud of me yet until I graduate and start a job, which I will start three weeks after graduation at UAB Hospital in their trauma burn unit. When I start that, I can breathe and say it’s all been worth it.”
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.