Gary native sponsored by AmeriCorps to support first generation students
Most of the students who visit Lendora Johnson in her fourth-floor office in Hawthorn Hall do a double take when they learn that she is really the professional they came to visit. At first, they think she is a fellow student instead of a mentor that will help them navigate the college experience.
A recent graduate herself, the 24-year-old Gary native is a member of AmeriCorps, a network of local, state, and national service programs that connect Americans who want to serve their communities in education and other areas. Her assignment is to work at Indiana University Northwest as a 21st Century Scholars support specialist.
Funded by the Indiana Commission of Higher Education, Johnson’s role on campus is to mentor freshman and sophomore students who walked through IU Northwest’s doors at 21st Century Scholars, a program created to help first generation college students matriculate into colleges and universities in the state of Indiana. There are approximately 190 21st Century Scholars currently attending IU Northwest. 21st Century Scholars are first generation college hopefuls who promise in the seventh or eighth grade to maintain a C average and be good citizens throughout high school. If they fulfill that promise, the state will pay 100 percent of their tuition and mandatory fees at an Indiana college. But in order to collect the maximum tuition benefit, they must finish their undergraduate degree in four years.
As Johnson knows from her own experience, “finishing in four” can be the hardest part. A 21st Century Scholar herself, Johnson has experienced the unique struggles these students have. She expects this will be an advantage as she works to help Northwest students persist to graduation.
“In many cases, the 21st Century Scholar program is what makes or breaks an individual’s decision to attend college. Then, when they get there, they wonder, ‘now what?’” Johnson said. “I definitely believe that utilizing my personal experience allows them to know that they are not in this journey alone. I also think it allows them to not make the same mistakes I made.”
Johnson said there are facts about the program that many students don’t understand, and they often don’t know about available resources. Whether it’s tutoring, study skills or simply the reassurance that they can do it, students can rely on a liaison like Johnson to keep them on track.
Jillian Brown, 19, of Portage, is a 21st Century Scholar with her sights set on medical school.
Having transferred from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) after the birth of her young son, the sophomore biology major met Johnson soon after enrolling at IU Northwest.
“She has been a great help,” Brown said. “She helped me create a class schedule that is more manageable and connected me with a tutor.”
Brown knows that staying on top of her studies is critically important if she is going to stay on track to graduate in four years. She is expecting a hefty course load next semester, with biology, chemistry, pre-calculus and trigonometry, but with Johnson’s support, and by taking advantage of available resources, Brown is confident she will succeed.
The youngest of six siblings, Johnson is the first in her family to earn a four-year degree. Johnson graduated from IUPUI with a degree in sociology.
She initially moved away from the area, but before long, she wanted to return in order to give back to her home community. Becoming accepted as an AmeriCorps member gave her that opportunity.
“A lot of individuals graduate and they leave the area and don’t come back,” Johnson said. “Something that I’ve always wanted to do is give back to the community, help it grow, build it. I always say that if I can touch one person and change that one person’s life, then that is my success.”
AmeriCorps members serve over a 10- to 12-month period. Upon completion of her service, Johnson will receive an award that she can use for graduate school or to pay back her student loans.
“I think that everybody has a reason they are here,” Johnson said. “It is refreshing to see your life plans come to fruition and you feel like you are in the right place at the right time.”
She is confident her life’s work is centered on bettering her community and making a difference one individual at a time.
In graduate school, Johnson intends to pursue higher education student affairs. “I would like to concentrate on first generation students or individuals with disabilities and helping them transition to college.”
Cathy Hall, director of Academic Success and Achievement Programs, said there has been a lot of activity in Johnson’s office since she came on board.