Tuscaloosa, Alabama – Only 40% of first generation students graduate in four years. Many feel they do not have enough support to achieve their dreams. Senior Johana Chavez has built her own path through hard work and grit, and it shows in the photos below.

This is her first-gen experience. 

Chavez thought college would be transactional. If she attended and applied herself, she would get a degree and start working in law. Little did she know that her time at The University of Alabama (UA) would become convoluted, filled with experiences which would ultimately change her life path and shape her growth as a person. 

One such experience of hers was photographing the 2024 Bama Blitz campaign, which raises industry immersion, scholarship and resource funds for first-generation students at UA. 

Chavez identifies with her parents’ Hispanic heritage while being a native to Alabama. Her mother is from Spain, and her father, from Mexico. 

Chavez said, “My mother did a very good job of having [our culture] be super pronounced in our home even though we lived in the middle of a super country place. It helped me find my belonging.” 

In addition, hard work is a cultural ethic which Chavez’s family held from her earliest memories and instilled into her as a child. 

Because neither of her parents completed a college degree, Chavez said she felt that she needed to “overcompensate” in college because of the work they did to allow her to go. 

Chavez said her parents’ sacrifices included her father traveling for work, her mother leaving school to raise Chavez and her siblings, her mother homeschooling the children and her parents starting a café business which closed after one year. 

Chavez’s mother helped convince her to go to college after she got tired of working with rude customers at the family’s café. She decided to “give college a shot” for one semester. 

“I took the [ACT] test in June, and then found out in July that I was accepted [to UA]. It was the craziest thing,” Chavez said. Her first time on campus was for Bama Bound orientation. 

While she wanted to learn interpersonal skills and communication, she said much of the coursework was less people-oriented than she had hoped and her interersts had shifted. 

“I felt like I should be happy or enjoying the thing I’m studying, and I was not,” Chavez said. She said she wanted more creativity and painstakingly considered switching her major for about a week before making the decision. 

“I liked being artsy. I thought, ‘Maybe my degree can be artsy, and I can do something fun and not hate my job,’” Chavez said. She landed on a major in Advertising, eventually joining Minerva, the two-year creative portfolio program for Advertising students. She kept her minor in Social Work. 

In addition to the course load and commuting from Fayette to Tuscaloosa for her first three years at the university, Chavez’s difficulty in school was compounded by her working while taking classes. 

Chavez has held multiple jobs in college. First was Babe’s Doughnuts, where she was a barista and worked part-time on social media branding for one year. After that, she interned for The University of Alabama’s A-Team and assisted with Camp 1831. That opportunity led Chavez to start at the university’s First Year Experience (FYE) office, where she was a peer mentor for first-year students. For two years, Chavez was a student worker at The College of Communication and Information Sciences.  

Finally, Chavez began photographing for the university’s Office of Strategic Communications after networking at an on-campus Adobe Day—a position which she still holds in addition to shooting freelance photography, assisting peers at the Education Abroad office and working as a barista for Monarch Espresso Bar. 

Chavez said she was reminded of her time in college while taking photos for Bama Blitz. She mentioned that being a senior in college, taking pictures of first-gen students like herself, she felt another new milestone in her personal and professional development. “It’s a very full-circle kind of moment.” Chavez said 

“This is oddly inspiring that I get to do something that I love and showcase other people who come from similar backgrounds,” Chavez said. 

Thinking about her time at The University of Alabama, Chavez said she wished she had known as a first-year student to ask a lot of questions. She said that being curious about the basics will help someone when transitioning into college, such as when to register for classes and measuring the walk between buildings. 

“People here take the time to get to know everyone, to do their job very well, so that the overarching thing that we’re here to do functions well in a very personal and intimate kind of way,” Chavez said. 

Johana Chavez is a student in C&IS, where she double-majors in Communication Studies and Advertising. She plans to graduate in 2024. After graduation, she aspires to work in advertising outside of the corporate environment and possibly start her own agency. Chavez is also the photographer for the 2024 Bama Blitz campaign, and her work is available here

Chavez has built her own path through hard work and grit. Imagine how much she could have done with more support.

C&IS is raising funds for first generation students, for industry immersion, scholarships and resources April 16-18.

All of the photos in this post feature first-gen students, faculty, staff and hall of famers from C&IS. Follow @uaccis to see their stories.