Tuscaloosa, Alabama — From childhood, Madison Brainerd and her parents would make short videos where she pretended to be a news anchor on television. News was always her passion, and her family always supported her. 

“I’ve known what I wanted to do since I was five,” Brainerd said. “It’s just that I didn’t know how to get to the resources I needed.” 

Now, Brainerd is a first-generation college student. Her father did not attend college, and her mother dropped out of school to raise her and her brother. Despite Brainerd’s long-time ambition to become a television news reporter, responsibilities beyond her academic focus meant that she would have to work harder to get her degree.  

This is her first-gen story. 

During her sophomore year of high school, Brainerd’s mother was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, an incurable condition which affects the inner ear. Brainerd took daily care of her while her father supported the family on a single income. Her brother also helped until he got an ear condition of his own, which Brainerd said resulted in brain surgery. 

“It was a really lonely time for me about a year ago,” she said. “I was my own support system in a way.” In addition to losing connections with some of her friends from high school, she was also taking care of her mother. 

“I would drive her places. I would be there by her bedside. I would make her a cup of tea, coffee or food. I had to step up and be kind of like the head of the family,” Brainerd added. 

During this time, Brainerd had to start figuring out how to get into college all by herself. But after multiple surgeries to treat the disorder, her mother was well enough to help her apply to The University of Alabama (UA) and go on campus tours. UA was her dream school “ever since the beginning.” 

Brainerd said UA was her top choice because “it’s the best school in Alabama, Roll Tide.” She added that she never would have gotten to this point without her parents’ help in applying to and finding a way to pay for college. 

Brainerd said her family planned for college around the kitchen table, discussing costs for everything and the jobs that Brainerd would need to work to pay for it all. Although she and her family made plans for covering the cost of college, they were not prepared for other opportunities that came to her during her education. 

Brainerd especially wanted to participate in UA’s Industry Immersion, a program which gives students an opportunity to explore industry-leading job markets around the country. 

“I want to go to New York to study journalism. I want to travel the country and learn. And it’s kind of put a strain on me, mentally,” she said of her financial circumstances. 

“I don’t really tell my family about these opportunities that I’ve been given, or that I’m thinking about, because I’m not sure if I can afford them or not.” 

Brainerd added that for her, financial help would mean being able to say “yes” to opportunities that will enhance her education. She would be able to focus more on her schoolwork and career development. 

Since working to overcome many of the obstacles in her life, she said she has grown significantly in the last year. 

“Though life has been hard, I say I don’t regret anything I’ve done because that has helped me grow mentally and as a person,” Brainerd said. “I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the struggles I’ve been through.” 

Brainerd credits her mother for many of her achievements, and she shared this message of thanks: 

You’ve helped me so much through not only college, and not only high school, but life. You have been there since the beginning, and you made me feel that I was worth it. You were there for me, even when you really couldn’t be. You sacrificed everything. You had just had brain surgery, but you were always worried about me and never about yourself. And as soon as I got accepted to Alabama, you were thinking of all the things I could do. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for you. Because of you, I know I’m loved. 

“She’s just my number one. She’s always been there for me throughout everything,” Brainerd said of her mother. 

Madison Brainerd is a first-year student in the College of Communication and Information Sciences (C&IS) studying News Media. A current sophomore in college, she plans to graduate in 2026. She aspires to work in broadcast journalism after graduation. 

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

Want to learn more about the photos featured in this article? Meet Johana Chavez.