Stacie Fairley, PhD | First Generation Student Spotlight
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First Generation Student Spotlight 
Stacie Fairley, PhD

January 12, 2023

The Office of Diversity and Community Relations celebrates the unique accomplishments of first generation students. This series features PCOM faculty, staff and students who were the first to attend college, graduate school or medical school within their families. We believe spotlighting our first generation community members will encourage our students to use their talents to shine during professional school and as future healthcare providers.

Stacie Fairley, PHD

Headshot of Stacie Fairley, PhDAbout Dr. Fairley

Dr. Fairley is an associate professor of microbiology and immunology and director of interprofessional education at the PCOM South Georgia. She also serves as the faculty advisor for the PCOM South Georgia Opportunities Academy, a week-long STEM program for area high school students.

How do you define first gen?

This definition is fluid, and variations in the definition depend on who you ask. First gens usually accomplish the first achievements in a family (i.e., first teacher, first elected official, first business owner, first millionaire, etc.)

Tell us about your journey to healthcare/medical education.

I grew up in Collins, MS, a rural city about 20 minutes north of Hattiesburg, MS. I earned my bachelor's and PhD from Alabama State University, a historically Black college/university (HBCU). I chose an HBCU because I wanted to be taught by professors that looked like me, and I figured I had the rest of my life to be a minority. I completed my post-doctoral at GIANT Innovation in Grenoble, France. My post-doctoral studies focused on assessing cytokine concentrations from a single cell. After completing my post-doctoral studies, I returned to the United States to pursue a career in academia.

Tell us about your experiences in graduate school.

I obtained my PhD from Alabama State University. During graduate school, I was a graduate teachers' assistant, a peer tutor, the Life Sciences Graduate Association president, and a member of the University's Executive Council. My PhD studies focused on vaccine development using nanoparticles and IL-12. Everyone I encountered during my graduate school tenure became an extended family member. We laughed, cried, and encouraged one another. Without their support, I would not have made it. Even though I had a wonderful, supportive, diverse graduate cohort, I still experienced burnout and had moments of being unmotivated. I would take a few days or weeks to reset and refocus to combat burnout and motivation. I did not realize the importance of these mental breaks until I became an advisor for my students.

What was it like as a first-gen college student graduate?

It was tough. There was no reference person in my family that I could call for guidance about my courses, research project, etc. I often felt guilty for leaving my family and the additional financial burden I placed on my family. Additionally, my family had enormous expectations for me. For instance:

  1. They expected me to continue to be an extension of our morals and values.
  2. They expected me to maintain exemplary grades.
  3. They expected me to make the right decisions.
  4. They expected me to overcome every social, economic, and academic barrier.

I could not fail.

Many first-gen students feel a notion of enormous pressure to succeed. How did you combat it?

Knowing that I represented my family and community was immense pressure. Finding familiar environments such as a church family, identifying a mentor, and taking advantage of the school's student services were pivotal in my journey to success.

What are some of the external pressures that impacted your journey?

One external pressure was trying to assimilate to college and fit in with students with different backgrounds and ideologies. Another pressure was time management; I was chosen to be the leader for everything. I had to learn to manage my time and leadership responsibilities and to be okay with saying no to additional duties. Additionally, there were moments when I was dissatisfied with my projects and institutional bureaucracy. Taking those mental breaks to reset and refocus was really helpful; it allowed me to return to my work invigorated, and I looked at it from a fresh perspective.

Do you have any advice for graduate/medical students, particularly first-gen students?

Take advantage of academic support services. Take mental breaks. Baby steps are still steps. You got this!

What have been your most important, proudest and/or favorite experiences in your career?

Attending my students' graduations has been the proudest moment in my career.

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