In the fall of 2012, Ryan Gardner left his home in Orange County, California to be a student at The University of Alabama. He had been drawn to UA since attending a homecoming game the year before, and he and his friends enjoyed the “big sports” culture. He enrolled at UA with about 17 other students from his high school, and he felt like he had an immediate friend group. His first couple of years as a main campus student studying Criminal Justice were very positive. “I had a great experience. I don’t know anyone who could hate it here,” he said.
During his junior year, Ryan was succeeding in school, but financial difficulty at home caused a loan default, and he couldn’t afford to maintain his progress. On top of that, after withdrawing from school but before he’d moved home, he was diagnosed with juvenile onset diabetes. “Basically, I had Type I, but when you get it as an adult, it’s really serious. They put me in a medically induced coma and said I was lucky to be alive because a lot of people die from that.”
When he finally got home, the setbacks continued. “We were in a really bad place. I didn’t even have a bedroom at one point – I have a little sister and we had to find a roommate so we could afford the place, and I took the couch so my sister could have a bedroom.”
Through all of this, he and his family persevered. Ryan started working so he could contribute financially, and he let his college dreams take a back seat. “The idea of graduating from college and my experience at UA dissipated from my memory. I never thought I could afford it again. I owed the school over $10,000, and I didn’t think there was any way I could ever pay it back.”
After working his way up to management at a chain restaurant, he was hired at a small food service company on the corporate account management side. “I wanted to apply for all these jobs – I was always very capable, but I knew I wouldn’t even get interviews without a college degree.” As he was excelling in his career, his family’s financial situation was also improving, and his dad was able to help him pay back his outstanding UA balance.
“Then I started trying to figure out a way to get back to Alabama and I stumbled upon Bama By Distance and realized I could keep working toward my Criminal Justice degree online, and the tuition was super affordable,” Ryan said. He learned he could benefit from the Back to Bama grant, which pays for the first course in a Bama By Distance program for former students who are returning to UA. He had felt defeated when all his friends graduated from UA without him, and he was glad to find a way to keep making progress. “I was finally excited about something again.”
In Spring 2019, he took a full course load of online classes through Bama By Distance while also balancing his full-time job. He earned straight A’s, improving his GPA, and continued this progress through the summer and fall. “I loved the way it was laid out. It was super easy for me to finish up at work and go home to work on school. I thought it was awesome – I was working full time and doing full-time school, and I never really thought it was too much because it was flexible enough to fit around my schedule,” he said.
By the end of the Fall 2019 semester, Ryan realized that if he continued through the online program, he was going to have to slow down. The Criminal Justice program was newly online, and he had so many credits from his earlier time at UA that he was nearly done with all the courses they had developed for online delivery through Bama By Distance at that time. He talked to his dad and decided to move back to Tuscaloosa and finish his last semester on campus. But his last semester as a main campus student ended up mostly online due to COVID-19 precautions.
“Even though my main campus classes were online for the pandemic, there was definitely a difference. The Bama By Distance classes are so great because everything was available at the start of the semester and there were no limitations on working ahead. I could get four weeks ahead if I needed to prepare for a work trip or something. They did a great job with the main campus online courses as well, but you had to wait for weekly lectures to be posted and that sort of thing, so it was just different,” he said.
Ryan graduated in Spring 2020 and decided to pursue his Criminal Justice master’s on campus at UA as well. He is also currently working as a graduate teaching assistant and has plans for law school next. “If you had told me five years ago that I would ever be able to finish my bachelor’s, let alone be working on a master’s and talking about law school – I would have laughed in your face! I thought higher education wasn’t an option for me anymore. Restarting my degree motivated me to feel more like myself again.”
“It was hard, but it was worth it. No one can ever take away my degree. And I had wanted it for so long! There was no one that was going to change my mind. I was like, ‘I’m going back, I’m going to get my degree.’”
Published: March 9th, 2021