Monday, June 3, 2013

My Dr. Helms

This is going to be very, very difficult to write.  The tears are already welling up in my eyes, much as they have been since I heard the terrible news this weekend.

Friday night, the world lost one of the greatest people I have ever known: the incomparable Dr. Billy Helms.  He served as the head of the Economics, Finance, and Legal Studies department at the University of Alabama for many years.  But more importantly, he has served as my mentor for the last five years.

Of course, I had no idea how much he would mean to me when we met my freshman year.  For those of you who didn’t know me then, or who might’ve forgotten, let me sum up freshman Stephanie in one word: lost.  I started at Alabama as a chemical engineering major; after all, I wasn’t going to let a little thing like hating chemistry and engineering stand in my way!  I didn’t enjoy my classes, my professors, or (to be frank) my fellow students.  The stress built up so much that one engineering professor sent me to see a psychologist at the counseling center just months into my first semester.

Second semester, I didn’t sign up for a single engineering class.  I got a letter from the school of engineering saying I would lose my extra scholarship money if I didn’t rectify the situation, but I could not have cared less.  I was free! 

Just one tiny problem… I no longer had a major, or even a college.  The College of Arts & Sciences sounded unrestrictive enough for me, so I made an appointment to be advised.  I felt like such a sheep, a number, nothing more than another 15-minute obligation on someone’s calendar.  I left my appointment feeling defeated and more lost than ever.

Then one day, I realized I kind of enjoyed my required microeconomics class.   Since I’d already given up on Arts & Sciences, I figured I might as well talk to somebody in the College of Commerce & Business Administration.  One fateful day, I made my way to the third floor of Alston Hall for the first time; walked into the Economics, Finance, and Legal Studies office; and asked to speak to somebody about majoring in economics.  That was the day I met Dr. Helms.

I wasn’t handed a pamphlet or asked to make an appointment for a later date.  Dr. Helms, with that incredibly warm smile of his, welcomed me into his office right then and there.  I don’t remember exactly how long I stayed, but I know I walked out with the next three years of my academic life planned for me. 

Dr. Helms and his not so “invisible hand” (he was a finance guy, after all) started guiding me then, and I happily accepted the direction.  I can’t even begin to guess how many times I went to visit his third floor office after that.   Sometimes I would go by just to chat.  Other times to get advised (under the table) so I wouldn’t have to go to talk to some stranger in Bidgood. Sometimes I would go to complain about how hard a course was and how I was going to fail (or, just as bad, get a B).  He would listen patiently for a minute or two before he told me how ridiculous I was being, how easy the course was, and how I was much too smart to be challenged by the courses I complained about.

I could do anything because Dr. Helms believed in me.  He pushed me to be the best; he made me my best.  He is the reason I majored in economics and added a second major in math.  He never could quite convince me to go the finance route or to be a University Scholar (get my bachelor’s and master’s degree concurrently), but let it be known that he tried.  And he got his way when it came to most of the courses I took from sophomore year through grad school.

Every year, Dr. Helms hosted an honors barbecue in his backyard for all the top economics and finance students.  It was always one of my favorite days of the year.  My senior year, I was one of four Austin Cup scholars; I was top student for the Economics and Finance Department, and the other three scholars were the top students in their departments.  As if that honor wasn’t enough, I was named the winner of the Austin Cup for top student in the entire business school.  I’m not being modest when I say that Dr. Helms is the reason I won that award.  He nominated me, and I know he fought for me.  He was so proud when he handed me that award, and I was so thankful.  As I walked away from the podium with my ridiculous trophy, he commented that there would be pictures later because, “We want to be famous someday because we are associated with you.”  I loved that man.

Just a few weeks after that barbecue was the tornado that ravaged Tuscaloosa.  My community was devastated, and my senior year came to an abrupt end.  I’d somehow neglected to make any solid post-graduation plans myself, but luckily Dr. Helms had convinced me to apply for graduate school at Alabama.  He also nominated me for a Graduate Council Fellowship that allowed me to go to graduate school for free with an unbelievable stipend.

In summary, he is the reason I have a bachelor’s degree.  He is the reason I have a master’s degree.  He is the reason I have a career.  To say that I owe him a lot is a gross understatement; I owe him everything.

My story is not unique.  In fact, my little brother Scotty was lucky enough to follow in my footsteps and have Dr. Helms’ guidance for the last three years.  (Dr. Helms even convinced him to one-up me by getting his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in four years).  And Scotty and I are just two of the thousands of students who Dr. Helms impacted.  But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I never felt like one of thousands.  He always made me feel special and instilled so much confidence in me.  I’m so sad for the students who won’t have that support now that he’s gone.

I was fortunate enough to go back to Tuscaloosa in April with Mom and Scotty for one last barbecue (my fifth) at Dr. Helm’s house.  He only gave out two awards that night, but he made sure to call me out in front of the entire crowd when another student won this year’s Austin Cup.  I was so glad to be there to see him and tell him all about my job and just talk to him one last time.  Of course, I didn’t know it would be the last time.  And he was so full of life, as always, that I never could’ve guessed it would be the last time.

I am so angry at cancer for taking him away far too soon. 

But I am determined to carry on his legacy somehow.  I know he’s always with me, and I just hope to make him proud.  I’d like to think that all he’d want is for me to live a happy life, but who am I kidding?  He has much higher expectations than that.

I’ll miss you, Dr. Helms.  Forever.  Thank you.

With my mentor. April 7, 2011

He was so happy and proud for my honor.  Of course, he is the one who deserved to be honored.

Dr. Helms will always be family.

Always proud of his Austin Cup winners.  And he demanded that he and I be in the center of this picture.  <3 April 5, 2013

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Moving Up and Moving On

It is Thursday, June 21, 2012.  I am in my hometown of Madison, Alabama, sitting at my mom’s kitchen table while Louie sleeps at my feet.  It’s a pretty normal (post grad school) scene for me.

But very soon, I’ll have to find a new normal.

Last Saturday, I said goodbye to Tuscaloosa, the city I’ve called home for the past five years.

This Saturday, I’ll be saying goodbye to Madison, the city I’ve called home home for more than 20 years.

I’ll be packing the last of my belongings into my car and hitting the road, trying not to cry as I embark on my trip to my new home: Cincinnati, Ohio.

When my 6 ½ hour trip is finished, I’ll be unloading my things into the place I’ll be living for at least the next two years (Pictures coming soon!).  Then, I’ll be settling in for a day before starting my first real job bright and early Monday morning.

“I’m moving to Cincinnati.”  I say these words out loud, sometimes to myself and sometimes to other people, multiple times a day.  “I’m moving.  To Cincinnati.”  That just doesn’t sound right.  “I’m. Moving. To. Cincinnati.”  Nope, still not processing it.

I was born in California, but I don’t have any real memories before my family moved to Alabama.  This state has been my sweet home since February of 1992.

In the infamous words of Jessie Spano, “I’m so excited!  I’m so … scared.”

I’m anxious. About leaving my friends and family, starting my job, paying my own bills, making new friends, being an adult.

But mostly, I’m excited about all those things.  It’s time to take a step forward.

The past year wasn’t fantastic; graduate school was a weird, lonely, exhausting, unsettled time.  But now I am twenty-two with a master’s degree, and I have the opportunity to put my years of education to good use!

Furthermore, I have the opportunity to build a life for myself sans school.  It's time, and I'm ready.

So goodbye for now, Alabama!  And hello, Ohio!

(Does this mean I have to change the name of my blog?)

Friday, April 27, 2012

T-Town, Never Down

I haven’t wanted to write in a while, and to be honest I still don’t have the right words now.

Today is April 27, 2012; one year ago was April 27, 2011, a day this city will never forget.

I remember every detail of that day before the storm; it was all so important at the time.

It began as a beautiful Wednesday of dead week (much too aptly named in this case).

I went to El Rincon for an end-of-the-year lunch with my indoor rock climbing class. 

I ate huevos rancheros and paid full price (for the first time ever) for a margarita.

I returned to my second-floor apartment off 15th St. to nap until my 3:30 class.

I couldn’t fall asleep, so I grabbed my finance book to start studying for finals.

I made Scotty come out in the living room to watch James Spann with me.

The weather looked scary; we waited for the University to cancel classes.

I didn't want to move from the couch to go to finance and econometrics.

I didn't expect Tuscaloosa to be hit; it is just not something you expect.

Jonathan came over, and we decided to skip still-not-canceled classes.

The University sent an e-mail (I still think too late) canceling classes.

Then the tornado touched down; it was so close but a world away.

James Spann warned us to take cover, and we were all scared.

I nervously moved to the dining room, far from the windows.

Scotty, much braver than me, looked out those windows.

He saw the tornado that was on TV outside, too close.

He said we should run, but I was in utter shock.

 I couldn't fully grasp the storm's imminence.

 I put on shoes and locked the front door.

We sprinted to the nearby clubhouse.

We joined neighbors in a closet.

We closed the door behind us.

The air pressure changed.

We braced ourselves.

The tornado passed.

We had survived.

We walked out.




Sunday, January 15, 2012

Ciao 2011! Ciao 2012!

Well, I did it once again.  I fell off the face of the blogging earth.

It happens.

But I want to make a little more effort to keep up with this creative outlet in this (still sort of) new year.  Promise!

And what better way to start back than with a cheesy new year’s post?

The beginning of a year is always exciting.  Even though almost nothing inherently changes, other than the date we all write on our papers and checks, there is something liberating about the implied fresh start.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so ready to say goodbye to a year.  2011 was easily the most difficult year of my life.

In 2011 I coped with the loss of my grandmother, narrowly avoided the deadly path of the tornado that devastated Tuscaloosa, went without a car for months, dealt with rejection in what seemed like a never-ending job search, and struggled through my first semester of grad school (with many of my closest friends gone from Tuscaloosa).

The year wasn’t all bad, though.  I got the chance to share an apartment with my little brother (I might have been alone during the tornado if that weren’t the case.), had a fantastic last semester of undergrad with great friends, enjoyed being 21, went to Mardi Gras, met Guster, graduated from The University of Alabama, was the maid of honor in my best friend’s wedding, got a great fellowship for grad school, traveled to exciting places like Alaska and DC and Dallas and New York, finally landed the perfect job (for me), got an adorable new puppy (Louie!), and made beaucoups of new friends.

In spite of everything, someday I’m sure I’ll look back at 2011 and smile.

As for 2012, I hope it’s one of the best years of my life. 

It certainly started out amazingly!  I traveled to New Orleans with my mom, uncle, and brother and witnessed Alabama win its 14th, or 9th if you want to be politically correct, National Championship.  (When I finally upload pictures, that trip will obviously be getting its own post.)

In a way, the rest of 2012 is all laid out for me.  The plan is to work my butt off and finish graduate school in May then move to Cincinnati for my new job sometime in the summer.

I’m keeping my eyes on that ultimate destination, but I plan to enjoy the scenery along the way as much as possible. 

After all, this is more than likely my last semester as a student EVER.  And I am just now getting the hang of it!  (Kidding, mostly.)

These may even be my last few months as a resident of Alabama.  Before you know it, I just might be a card-carrying Yankee!

So here’s to 2012, a year of endings and of beginnings.  I hope to keep you all updated on this crazy journey!

Monday, September 5, 2011


I have a long list of things I should be doing, but I am choosing to write this blog because that is what I want to do right now.  And darn it, that's what matters.

I just drove back from Madison to Tuscaloosa in Tropical Storm Lee.  It was terrifying.  I swear my life flashed before my eyes a couple times when I was driving 45 on the interstate blinded by the rain or when I was having to slam on my breaks to avoid accidents or obliviously law-breaking drivers without their lights on.

I haven't been this scared for my life since I was crammed in that closet with fifteen or so people on April 27.

And being scared for your life really puts things in perspective.  As a 22 year old (in four days), I don't often dwell on my own mortality.  I'm young, just starting graduate school, too busy with fall semester and football season to die.  Right?

Even after losing my grandma to cancer almost nine months ago, and even though I miss her every single day, death still isn't real to me.

But the truth is people my age die every day.  Freak accidents, diseases, natural disasters.  Our life can be taken from us without a moment's notice.

Just over a week ago, I went with friends to the Tuscaloosa Remembers memorial service honoring the lives taken by the tornado on April 27.  Dr. Witt, Coach Grant, and Coach Saban all spoke about the impact that day has had on our University and the entire community.

Something that Coach Saban said, in particular, stuck with me.  "Every day, we should appreciate the opportunity that we have to accomplish and affect something."  He told all the students at the service that we should be grateful to be alive and that we should be living our lives to the fullest, something that the six UA students killed by the tornado can no longer do.

We all really are so blessed, aren't we?  To have this opportunity to live.

I want to make the most of it.  I want to do things that make me happy.  I want to help others.  I don't want to do things because they are expected of me but because they are right.  I don't want to be complacent.  I want to explore and take chances every day.  I want to live for those who can't.

I watched an old movie called "Holiday" with my mom, grandpa, and uncles yesterday.  The movie, which was made in 1938, stars Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn.  Grant's character has been working since he was ten years old and now wants to make just enough money so that he can take a long holiday... while he's still young enough to enjoy it.  Not a bad idea.  (Though perhaps a bit impractical during the Great Depression.)

I definitely don't want to put off happiness now so that I can have it later.  Today could be my last chance.  Or yours.

Think about it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Playing Catch Up

None of you is less surprised than me that I have let this blog die over the course of the summer.  Me having too much free time leads to me watching entire seasons of shows rather than even feigning productivity.

But as I sit on my couch less than three hours before my graduate school orientation (I wrote this earlier today but am just now posting it as I steal Internet.), I have a sudden urge to write about everything that has happened in the past few months.  For your sake, I’ll just hit the highlights.

1.         I went to Alaska!  I could’ve sworn I wrote about this already, but I guess I’m losing my mind.  Scotty and I went on a business trip with our mom and got to experience Alaska’s natural beauty and delightfully cool weather for a week.  Fairbanks and Fort Greely, two of the places we stayed, were admittedly very boring.  But Denali was beautiful and made the entire trip more than worth it.
            I saw wolves and moose and bears, oh my! (Yes, I have made this joke before.  It’s still funny.)  And every way you turned was a view even more beautiful than the one before.  You could see those views anytime you wanted, too, because the sun never really set the whole time we were there.  I would absolutely go back to Alaska, but it would have to be in the summer again; this Alabama girl is not cut out for negative anything temperatures!

2.         I got my car back.  Amen and hallelujah, y’all.  I have not stopped thinking all summer about how lucky I was to not be injured or completely displaced by the tornado.  But it was torture not having my car for 9 weeks!  I went from enjoying total freedom my senior year of college to being immobile at my mom’s house most of the summer.  Not my idea of fun. 
Unfortunately, the shop did a pretty shoddy job on my car.  My (after market) back window was ridiculously warped; it was dangerous driving because looking at my rearview mirror was looking through a carnival mirror.  A shop in Huntsville replaced that window and repainted/fixed parts that the first shop hadn’t done right. 
Again unfortunately, the saga isn’t quite over yet.  Now that I’m back in Tuscaloosa, I’m supposed to contact my insurance company again to have my car reassessed and probably fixed again.  But I’m not even that mad; mostly I am just happy to be mobile again!  And to still have the car that Grandma worked so hard to get me.  It’s a blessing.

3.         My best friend got married!  (I was the maid of honor, and this will probably get another more detailed post soon.  With pictures!) Katie is now a Coppens, and none of us could be happier.  My weekends in July were pleasantly consumed by a bridal tea, lingerie shower, bridesmaid luncheon, and bachelorette party.  And those were some of the best weekends of my life!  It was great spending time with Katie, her family, family friends, and my fellow bridesmaids.  What an unbelievable month!
Then came the weekend of August 6.  Friday was the rehearsal and the rehearsal dinner.  It’s no secret that I can get a little emotional, but I was a wreck that night!  When Katie walked down the aisle to her entrance song during the rehearsal, I pretty much started bawling.  Katie’s dad and Zack’s dad told me I would have to hold it together during the actual wedding or they might both lose it, too! 
I also got entirely too emotional during the speeches at the rehearsal dinner.  Zack’s dad got me crying right before I was supposed to talk, but somehow I held it together during my maid of honor speech.  But I cried again during Jake’s, Katie’s dad’s, and Zack’s sister’s speeches.  It messed up all the real makeup I had bought specifically for this weekend!
Wedding day was also an emotional rollercoaster, but it was one of the best days of my life.  Katie was literally the most beautiful bride ever in history of the world.  No, I’m not biased.  I broke down right before the wedding seeing her in her wedding dress, but I mostly held it together during the actual ceremony.  It was hard to keep my lip from quivering, though.  But all the emotions were happy ones, and the ceremony was incredible.
After the I do’s (actually, I wills), we went over the Limestone Springs to dance the night away.  I cried AGAIN during Katie and Zack’s first dance and when Katie danced with her dad and Zack danced with his mom.  But it’s their fault for choosing such emotional songs!  The music was great and the reception was a blast, and I cried for the last time when the newlyweds drove away in the Rolls Royce.  It was perfect!

4.         Just the Wednesday after Katie’s wedding I went to D.C. and New York with my good friend, and former across the hall neighbor, Matt.  We went to D.C. to visit Chris, another very good friend (and another across the hall neighbor).  Chris is going to Georgetown this year ( :) / :( ), and Matt and I took it upon ourselves to help him get settled in.  Not like actually helping him set up his house but more like having tons of fun and forcing him to be our tour guide.  Basically the same thing, right? 
Either way, we had loads of fun in D.C. (and ate at my new favorite restaurant Roti… like Mediterranean Chipotle) for a day or so before Matt and I took the Bolt Bus to New York to stay with his friend Josh for a couple of days.  We navigated the subway system, ate dinner at Shake Shack, saw Times Square, slept in Brooklyn, ate real New York bagels, spent hours walking in Central Park, took an entire afternoon (still, not nearly enough time) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ate dinner in Little Italy, again spent the night in Brooklyn, walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, ate some not so real New York pizza, and took the Bolt Bus back to D.C.  It’s exhausting just writing that, but it was so much fun!  I don’t know if I could live in New York, but I would love to visit for longer.
When we got back to D.C. on Saturday night, it was time for our last big hoorah.  We ate Afghan food (YUM!) and then hit the town with three other UA folks.  It was a glorious night, and it ended with late-night empanadas.  Perfection.  Sunday was spent touring Georgetown, eating delicious cupcakes at Baked and Wired, schmoozing with important UA grads, touring monuments, and finishing it all off with a bottle of wine that we risked our lives in a storm for.  Monday we went to Ben’s Chili Bowl (where the Obama family and Bill Cosby eat free), saw the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, toured more monuments, and then sadly had to pack up and leave.  All in all, it was a great way to spend some of the last days before we all get sucked into the grad school vortex.

5.         Speaking of the grad school vortex, these are quite literally the last words I will write before I am sucked into it.  There are less than two hours now until orientation.  I realized I never fully disclosed my graduate school plans, mostly because I didn’t make those plans until after the tornado.  After April 27, I just couldn’t see leaving Tuscaloosa behind quite yet.  So I accepted a fellowship, found an apartment, and went home to relax for the summer.  Now, nearly four months later, I have moved back to Tuscaloosa to make good on my word.  For the next twelve months, I will be working toward a Master’s degree in Applied Economics.  I know it may sound terrible, but darn it, it’s practical.  And somebody has to fix our economy, right?
15 hours this semester.  Here’s to the end of my social life as I know it!  Thank goodness my summer was so outstanding.  Roll Tide.

Thursday, June 30, 2011


As you can probably tell from the title, this post is not going to be a happy one.  But I am going to ease you, wonderful readers, into my anger slowly.

First, let me apologize for not writing in an entire month (especially during the summer, when I am really not that busy).  I planned to write about my Alaska trip but never got around to it.  I do plan on writing about it soon, but first there is something else I need to address:

Just exactly how angry I am at UA.

I woke up to a tweet from one of my best friends, Caroline, that one of our favorite restaurants in Tuscaloosa has closed down.  It saddens me to say that restaurant is Crimson Cafe.

I can't pinpoint the first time I ate at Crimson Cafe, but I know it was during my freshman year at UA.  Their food was great, especially the pizza bagels Katie and I always got and their drinks and lemon squares.  I loved that they had enough vegetarian options to keep me full and happy!

Admittedly, I often purchased my food with Dining Dollars.  (I used my debit card or cash when I could, though, because they offered a 20% discount for doing so!)

Sadly, those Dining Dollars are the main reason that The Crimson Cafe is shutting down after 18 years of business.  Here is the link to the Tuscaloosa News article explaining exactly why they are closing.  To summarize, Crimson Cafe must pay Aramark 21% of all Dining Dollar transactions.  TWENTY-ONE PERCENT. 

While I understand that Crimson Cafe chose to take Dining Dollars (originally paying Aramark 15 percent of transactions sometime in the 1990's), it is clear they had to make this choice to stay in business.  When students are your target demographic, you have to do whatever you can to keep them coming back.

Students are paying with their tuition, not by choice, to get $300 in Dining Dollars each semester.  I've heard the argument that you can get that money back at the end of the year if you don't spend it all, but that doesn't matter in the moment when the only food money some students have is their Dining Dollars.  They have no choices other than to buy food at inflated prices on campus or to dine at one of the few restaurants that accepts Dining Dollars.

Most students aren't aware that over twenty percent of their money is going not to the restaurants they patronize but instead to the ever-looming Aramark.  I, personally, would prefer that my money pay for my food.  Call me crazy, but that's how I feel.  Aramark has taken over dining on and around campus, and it disgusts me.

It really upsets me that my school, The University of Alabama, did nothing to help Crimson Cafe.  Especially after the tornado!  The administration can try to shift blame to Aramark, but the truth is that they hired them to monopolize dining.  The Strip is losing so much of what UA students love, and our school has no desire to stop it.  In fact, maybe the University is happy to see another local business gone.  They sure seemed to want Lai Lai off the Strip earlier this year!

When I drive through campus and the surrounding area with my mom, she barely recognizes anything.  The Strip is completely different than it was when she was at UA not so long ago, and I don't think that's a good thing.  As if the tornado didn't steal enough from our community on April 27!  Now it seems we're stealing from ourselves.

For such a historic school, our administration seems to have no interest in preserving anything that they're not profiting from.  I was a business major and understand how businesses work, but The University of Alabama is not a business.  First and foremost, it is an institution of higher learning; I feel like what I'm learning is that unique small businesses have no place in the area surrounding UA.

Hopefully Alabama will make sure another fun chain restaurant or leasing office opens up in Crimson Cafe's spot!