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A first-generation college student: Christy Dorsey Johnson

August 20, 2018

“I’m a First-Gen College Student” will bring together first-generation students, faculty, staff and recent alumni with Welcome Events from 4 to 6 p.m. Sept. 4 and from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 5 at Founders Memorial Library.

To help launch the program, we’re telling just some of the many first-generation stories here at NIU.

Christy Dorsey Johnson

Christy Dorsey Johnson

Christy Dorsey Johnson transferred colleges seven times. At one point, she and her young daughter lived in her car.

It took her about 14 years to finally earn her bachelor’s degree, another two years to earn a master’s degree. But she did it.

“It’s been a journey, and the journey continues,” said Johnson, an assistant director of admissions for regional recruitment and an admissions counselor at NIU since 2015. A Ph.D. is next on her list. “My life has been one of persistence.”

Johnson grew up splitting time between her mother’s home in Chicago and her father’s in Puerto Rico. She watched how hard they worked, how much they sacrificed to support their family. They didn’t complain, just did what they had to do to get by.

Johnson knew she wanted to go to college despite the fact no one in her family had gone before her.

“There was never a question of, ‘Will I go to school?’ That was just something I knew I was doing,” she said. “It was just something in me.”

Determined to go out of state despite her parents suggesting otherwise, Johnson first attended the University of Maryland Eastern Shore where she fell in love with the diverse population. She hadn’t really prepared financially, took out student loans.

Told by her family to consider business, she met with an advisor, who asked her which area of business she’d like to pursue.

“I thought she was slightly trying to make me feel uneducated,” she remembered. “I had no idea that business had so many emphases, nor did she give me any idea that it did. I got so irritated with the questions that I changed my major to education.”

Bilingual, she thought she’d become a Spanish teacher. But, after her freshman year, the university discontinued her major.

So she transferred to Central Michigan University simply because a friend was there. After about a year and half, her financial aid wasn’t cutting it.

“My mom is like, ‘Bring it on home.’ I wanted to always take my own route. Nobody could tell me anything,” she said.

“I should have listened to my parents, but I felt like they didn’t go to college so they couldn’t give me that guidance. I’m the type of person who needs someone who’s been there, done that before. Even if someone hasn’t been there, if they have God-given common sense, they can give you advice.”

It would be a few more transfers–to Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill., Chicago State University (for a semester), back to Olivet, back to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and finally to Governors State University in University Park, Ill.–before she earned her degrees.

She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from Governors State University in 2009 and earned her master’s degree in communications and training there two years later. Through the years, she’s volunteered countless hours at nonprofit organizations and co-authored a book, “College Planning: An Interactive Workbook Designed to Prepare Students for College.”

It’s not a winding road she’d recommend, especially considering the amount of student loan debt she accumulated, but she’s proud of how far she’s come.

“I am a super-persistent person,” Johnson said. “I’m a believer. I’m a person always pushing.”

In the midst of all the transfers, Johnson was working and raising her daughter, now 17-year-old Aiyana, as a single parent. The pair even overcame a stretch in 2005 in Phoenix, Arizona, in which they were homeless.

“I’m going to restaurants in the morning, gas stations, washing up and sending her to daycare. It was super scary sleeping in the car,” she remembered.

“At least we did have a car. It was a difficult time. My family didn’t know we were living like that. I like to do it on my own. I got myself into this situation. I’ll get myself out… My daughter thought we were on some adventure, God bless her. I was going to do what I had to do. I can’t afford to give up. Someone is depending on me.”

Now college shopping, her daughter aims to study international business and Asian Studies. Aiyana taught herself Korean, founded the nonprofit organization The Concrete Rose Society to help provide teen mentorship training for girls ages 10 to 18 and wrote a memoir about her mother. She published the book with the help of her step-father, Benjamin Johnson, whom Christy married last July.

“We’ve struggled. We’ve been homeless. We’ve gone through a lot. To look back on the words she put inside that book, that she put about me and the strength she sees in me..,” Christy said with tears in her eyes, “… I just can’t even tell you. I knew she was paying attention, but I didn’t she was paying attention so much.”

Her struggles, she feels, help her connect with the students she advises, many of whom also are first-generation students.

She just tries to be there, to listen and to answer questions.

“They should just seek as much information and as many resources as early as possible and don’t be afraid to ask questions,” she said.

“You don’t necessarily have to chase that money field. You want to chase passion so when you get the paycheck, it’s a bonus. I love what I do. It’s not the highest paid job, but God provides for me and my family. I get to go out and talk to people, meet different people from different backgrounds. I enjoy what I do.”

Enjoy food, music and giveaways and hear stories about the personal experiences of those who were the first in their families to attend four-year colleges at Welcome Events on Sept. 4 and 5 at Founders Memorial Library.

Learn about the resources available here, including the Breaking Barriers bi-weekly support group for first-generation college students, the Mentoring Valuable Peers program, future career events, supportive and accessible NIU policies, financial aid and scholarship information and more.

Are you a first-generation faculty or staff member? Drop in to a Welcome Event and take home a laminated “I am a first gen college graduate” door decoration to put in your office. Let first-generation college students know they’re not alone and support is available.