Editor's Note: This article was updated to correct factual errors.
Upon her acceptance to UR, senior Johnnette Johnson knew she had major goals to accomplish as a first-generation college student, she said.
Johnson applied to the University of Richmond from her residential high school in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
"I was amazed that [representatives from] a university with those financial resources, programming and opportunities would travel to my small town," Johnson said.
Perhaps being a "first-gen" has made her graduation ceremony being postponed even more upsetting for Johnson. Her Louisiana family members planned to come watch her walk across the stage, an expensive journey they all deemed well worth it for such a tremendous accomplishment, she said.
“This is not how I wanted college to end, and I am acknowledging that pain," Johnson said. "I hope all my fellow graduates know that their feelings are valid and it is fine to be upset."
Commencement will not happen on May 10 as originally planned, but Johnson is grateful for the opportunities, people and lessons her time at UR provided, and she has found peace in that, she said.
She credited that peace to her independent nature. Johnson has always marched to the beat of her own drum and has been known to many as an outlier, she said.
This independence exists both in and outside of the classroom.
Johnson has always been interested in history and research, interests she said she developed through an intensive high school research project. She read and wrote extensively about the politics and strategies of the Weatherman Underground Organization and the Black Panther Party, she said.
She discussed this research on an admitted student visit with Bertram Ashe, an English professor, which led her to major in American studies, she said.
Johnson decided to hone in on black and colonial studies and has connected the subject to her passion for filmmaking and telling the stories of those who are often excluded from societal narratives, she said.
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“I have this drive to make the stories both in history and the present-day accessible and make history relevant to the history that we see today," Johnson said.
At UR, Johnson connected with researchers including Irina Rogova, then-archivist for the Race & Racism Project; Sojourna Cunningham, professor and social sciences librarian; and Lauranett Lee, a visiting lecturer at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, liberal arts professor at the School of Continuing and Professional Studies and public historian. These women empowered Johnson to push boundaries, she said.
While many of her fellow students decided to study abroad for the fall semester of junior year in countries across Europe, Johnson spent a full year studying in Senegal and Ghana.
"I think a lot of people at UR limit themselves because they don’t want to miss out on traditions like Ring Dance and Pig Roast, but an older student that I trusted told me to go for it,” she said. “I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I was fine with missing those things."
Johnson said the study abroad programs forced her out of her comfort zone, but she spoke fondly of her travels and the lessons she learned.
“I came in touch with global blackness, which is pretty much what my whole career is going to be about," she said. "Going to Senegal and Ghana where slave trades happened and where I could listen to oral historians and feel the history meant everything to me."
After returning to the United States, Johnson made the decision to live off-campus and get involved in projects and volunteering in the city of Richmond, she said. But, she did not let this weaken her connection to UR.
“Even though I don’t live on campus, I value the drive of my class and their leadership, which I can still appreciate from afar," she said. "Their initiatives, clubs and work ethic are admirable, and I know they will be successful in life."
Johnson wants her peers to recognize the importance of finding peace and solidarity within yourself, and recognizing what you want for yourself rather than what others have planned for your life, she said.
In the future, Johnson said she wanted UR to consider the opinions and voices of marginalized students.
“[The UR administration] always has these forums, but they don’t always take our thoughts into account," she said. "Sometimes it feels like we come last.”
Nonetheless, she said she was thankful for UR, its resources and the mentors she gained, including but not limited to professors Chuck Mike, Corey Walker and Patricia Herrera and librarian Molly Fair.
Johnson's college journey is coming to a close in uncharted territory, but she is making the most of the stay-at-home order and is excited to begin her postgraduate journey, she said.
Johnson will be working for Double EE productions, a black-owned production company in New York City, she said. She will begin her work with the company remotely when she moves back to Louisiana this summer.
“I am excited to kick start my career in storytelling and doing something I am passionate about," Johnson said. "It will be nice to get back to my roots, surrounded by my support system.”
This is the second installment of a four-part series to be published about graduating seniors.
Contact features writer Kay Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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