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The University of Alabama

Find Your Passion: Leading By Example

By James Jaillet; Photos by Laura Shill


Thomas finds her passion by helping others.

For Phillips Thomas, service-learning projects are not just resume-fillers. They are not just classes, and they are not just something to do over the summer.

For her, she says, they are about leading by example and impacting people’s lives in a hands-on, personal way.

Thomas, a University of Alabama senior from Anniston majoring in international studies, created an endowed fund last spring — as a gift for her 21st birthday — to support the University Honors College Black Belt Action program, a service-learning project in which UA students learn about the Black Belt region and its history and work at elementary schools mentoring children and sprucing up the schools.

“You can do what you love and still help people,” Thomas says. “Tomorrow isn’t important tomorrow. Tomorrow is important today. I want people to see that even as an undergraduate you can really impact the lives of other people. It doesn’t matter what the age is on your license, you can still impact the world around you.”

The program is an offshoot from the University Honors College’s Alabama Action program. Alabama Action is a service-learning project for incoming freshmen that lasts a week. Students visit elementary schools, mentor children and perform clean-up and revitalization projects to the school grounds.

A UA Honors College student paints a display at an area school as part of the College’s Alabama Action program. The Black Belt Action program, which Thomas’ endowed fund supports, is an offshoot of Alabama Action. (Photo by Laura Shill)

Black Belt Action, however, lasts three weeks, and is offered to all University Honors students. The class is offered during the interim term, between the end of the spring semester and the first summer term.

Thomas’s endowed fund, the Phillips Newbern Thomas Black Belt Action Fund, started with a $10,000 donation from her parents and godparents. The $10,000 is the base fund, and others can contribute to it.

The interest gained off of the original donation and the contributions is what is available for the program to use.

“I do hope that the fund will grow to the point where we can afford to do miniature scholarships, or at least cover the cost of tuition, or cover the fees for the class, so that out-of-state students can really get a chance to participate in it,” Thomas says. In the first week, students learn about the region, its history and its present state. The next two weeks, students go to an elementary school in the Black Belt and mentor children and work on the school grounds.

Phillips Thomas (Photo by Laura Shill)

Thomas says she knew because Black Belt Action is a longer, more expensive program and does not have as many participants as Alabama Action, it would need funding.

When her 21st birthday was approaching in December 2007, she said she knew what she wanted to give.

“I’m fortunate because I have a scholarship that pays for school, and I wanted my gift to mean something and not be just some material object,” Thomas says. “So, I told my parents what I wanted, and the fund was created. The surprise part was that my godparents gave some, and the total was enough to make the fund endowed in the spring.”

Thomas says she does not know how the program will grow or operate in the future, but she says the fund will always be there to help.

“I wanted to make an impact. I wanted this fund to be something that helped people and helped a region,” Thomas says. “I couldn’t ask for a better gift than something helping this program and helping continue the impact it makes.”

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This story is part of the Find Your Passion series. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.

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