Story: Lisa Sollie | Photos: Cody Ingram

Despite challenges, obstacles, and disappointments, Keya Tabb never gave up on her dream of becoming a registered nurse. Now enrolled in the University of West Alabama’s associate of science in nursing (ASN) program, the 52-year-old Tuscaloosa native is on track to graduate this May and credits her perseverance to her faith and grandmother’s wise counsel.

“My grandmother, who played a vital role in my upbringing, always believed ‘if something had value, you had to work for it.’ She also said, ‘The harder it gets, the deeper you must dig.’ Well, I’d say I’ve had to dig pretty deep to get this far,” Tabb chuckled.

Torn between pursuing a degree in nursing or education, Tabb initially chose to pursue an education degree and enrolled at Florida State University after graduating high school in 1990. While still in education, a year later, she transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and changed her major to nursing. Tabb struggled at UA and eventually dropped out. Still determined to become a nurse, she entered the licensed practical nursing program at Shelton State Community College and graduated but could not pass her boards.

For the next 16 years, Tabb stayed in healthcare, working as a nursing assistant in various facilities, including 10 years at Bryce Hospital, providing inpatient psychiatric services for adults throughout Alabama, and even a brief stint in the automotive industry and substitute teaching.

Then she reached a crossroads. Tabb said, “I asked God, ‘What do You want me to do’ and I felt the Lord’s response was ‘to finish what He called me to do.’”

In January 2010, Tabb began the LPN program at Shelton State for the second time, passed the boards on her first try, and started her career at the Alabama Department of Public Health. Nine years later, she decided to take the final step in her journey and enroll at UWA, but a missing transcript derailed her plans.

“When I found out just a few weeks before the 2020 fall semester that the nursing division didn’t have one of my transcripts, I couldn’t believe it! I knew I didn’t have enough time to get UWA what they needed, so I had to accept it wasn’t my time.”

The following year, Tabb tried again, but COVID put her out of commission for over a month, and she missed the August start date. Her disappointment over another setback soon became joy after Tabb learned she could begin the ASN program in January 2022 due to her completed coursework.

Relieved and thankful things were finally turning around, disaster struck again with a sudden and unexpected marital separation. Although devasted, Tabb did her best to work part-time, attend school, and be there for her son, but the challenges proved too much. After failing one of her classes at the end of the fall 2022 semester, Tabb had to wait eight months until she could apply for readmission to the program. But she didn’t give up.

“I dug deep like my grandmother told me, and through counsel from my mother, pastor, and his wife and many prayers, I started back in the program in August 2023, and I haven’t looked back.”

Dr. Mary Hanks, chairperson of UWA’s Division of Nursing, noted the call to diversify the nursing field has been answered by predominantly non-traditional students, like Tabb, who are passionate about their role in healthcare’s future. “The faculty, staff and I consider it a privilege to work with such a diverse group.”

As a student, Tabb has shown “great determination and work ethic” through her time at UWA, added nursing instructor, Dr. Jennifer Harwell, professor of nursing.  “Keya has also balanced school and real-life obligations as a mom to a busy teenage son and working as an LPN, and she’s done it all with a positive and friendly attitude toward her peers and faculty.”

As the spring semester winds down, there is one more hurdle ahead for Tabb and her classmates; passing the National Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN).

According to Hanks, the 2024 graduates will be prepared.

“For the past three years, 100 percent of our graduates have passed the NCLEX-RN, a testament,” she noted, “to the dedication of the division of nursing and the culture of achievement and expectation the nursing faculty and staff have created.”

Tabb, eager to finish well, hopes sharing her story of adversity will encourage others there is “no limitation to achieving your dreams. Don’t let your problems and challenges defeat you,” she concluded, “show them how big you are.”