She ended her collegiate career as part of a historic class. The class of COVID-19.
Jonesha Johnson, 20, joined more than 1,500 Georgia College & State University undergraduate and graduate students in a virtual graduation ceremony held May 2. During the digital celebration, she represented the highest level of academic success out of all her classmates. The only African-American student of her graduating class to earn the title of valedictorian.
“Since finding out, I’ve worn my sash every day,” said Johnson of Albany, Georgia, chuckling.
Rightfully so. The double major in English and liberal studies actually completed the two four-year degrees in less than three years. She also minored in Spanish. She found out by mail her rigorous studying routine earned her the top honor. A post office box run with her mom delivered the good news.
“I couldn’t stop smiling,” said Johnson, as she high-fived her mom and immediately called her dad. “All my hard work payed off. A black girl in a predominately white institution did her thing.” Although Johnson didn’t experience a traditional graduation, she exited “Georgia’s designated public liberal arts university” at the start of COVID-19 confident in her studies.
Georgia College is one of 4,234 higher education institutions impacted by the global pandemic. Johnson shared an abrupt conclusion to spring semester 2020 along with 25,798,790 other students affected by the global disease.
The Deep South scholar entered college alienated and homesick. She operated in this “strictly business” mode to cope. “School has always been serious to me,” Johnson said. “Coming from the people and place I did and feeling excluded, I didn’t think of anything else but studying.” Johnson crammed in internships to supplement her coursework as well:
- Black Farmers’ Network (BFN): student researcher and writer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture grant project. She compiled data, developed news stories and posted content about the very underserved and underdeveloped region she grew up in: the Black Belt Region;
- Peacock’s Feet Literary Journal: poetry editor. She proofread and edited poetry submissions for the university’s student-led journal;
- Georgia College University Communications: digital content creator. She produced podcast stories, learned new video/audio applications and edited original video scripts for on-air projects; and
- The Atlanta Voice: reporter and writer. She covered trending topics that connected to young entrepreneurs of Georgia’s capital.
In fact, Johnson produced her first professional cover story summer 2019 for The Atlanta Voice — the largest audited African-American community newspaper in Georgia that birthed from the Civil Rights Movement. Her story “Unconventional Spending: Five unique ways Black families can cut costs in Atlanta” helped open editorial doors into a potential career in publications. “These experiences really helped me develop my skills as a storyteller,” Johnson said. “My knowledge and love for the art of writing deepened and showed the power that written words carry.”
One of the most memorable campus connections Johnson made happened in front of Parks Hall. Dr. Veronica Womack, executive director of the university’s Rural Studies Institute and founder of BFN, saw Johnson sniffling while slumped on the entrance steps. “I was feeling completely homesick,” said Johnson, a then freshman. “Down and out. Dr. Womack comforted me in that moment.”
Johnson ran into Womack again her sophomore year. This time Womack offered her an internship with BFN to document black farmer stories of the Black Belt Region. The region — known as “America’s underresourced rural South” — is a crescent-shaped geographic territory. It encompasses hundreds of counties from Texas to Virginia with large African-American populations.
“I come from backwoods myself,” said Johnson. “My daddy’s side is from the dirt roads of Terrell County. Two of my great-grandfathers were farmers. My father and uncle grew up tending to livestock, too. They were all hardworking farmers just like the ones Dr. Womack dedicates her work to.”
The perfect research project.
Johnson grew up around fresh air, fruits and vegetables. Something about country living has always had a hold on her. “The way the crickets sing at night; the hidden treasures of beauty and barber shop talk; and the ease of bumping into familiar faces cannot be taken for granted,” she said.
Four years of undergraduate studies taught her that moving to the right place, collaborating with the right people, and carving out the right length of time could lead to innovative freedoms never imagined in the South. Initially, Johnson thought earning a bachelor’s meant a master’s degree had to follow. Instead, she’s gravitating toward digital entrepreneurship. After all, she’s a “post-Millennial” or Generation Z or iGen.
A Pew Research Center analysis of post-Millennials compared them in 2018 with earlier generations. Findings revealed post-Millennials are less likely than their predecessors to join the labor force, especially in a full-time capacity. “Honestly, I’m burnt out with school,” Johnson said. She wasn’t interested in Corporate America, either.
The young academic and activist is developing an organization for underrepresented people in the form of a YouTube channel and Patreon page called “ToMyPeople.”
“It’s visual storytelling through a hybrid of docu-series, poems, interviews, films and podcasts addressing the most overlooked topics in race, American history and the Black experience,” Johnson said. “In the words of my English professor, I’m ‘a steward of the English language,’ — just in a different way.”