One of only eight students in the country to receive the award

Special to The Collegian

Lorain County Community College student Nikita Johnson has been named a 2021 DREAM Scholar by Achieving the Dream (ATD) – the nation’s most comprehensive organization in advancing student success and equity. Johnson is one of just eight students in the country to be selected as a DREAM Scholar.

“I am still in shock that I am receiving this award. I am excited at the opportunity to continue my journey with the support of LCCC and the DREAM Scholar program,” Johnson said.

Nikita Johnson
Nikita Johnson

Achieving the Dream’s DREAM Student Scholars are resilient community college students, determined to reach their goals and lift up their communities. As a DREAM Scholar, Johnson will participate in the virtual ATD DREAM Conference, including sharing her story through an autobiographical poem.

            “I am from late-night cries that carry the pain of hunger.

From dirty shoes to nappy heads, and clothes counted up to a few.

     I am from early morning wake-ups, from eviction sheriff’s banging on the doors, to the cold touch of metal beds and wool covers from shelters housing the poor.”

The poem then reflects on her experiences on at LCCC.

“I am from a college that strives for its students to be more than their struggles.

A college that supports diversity, commitment, foundations, perseverance, creativity, ethnicity, equity, and inclusion.

with something as small as a text, but as strong as a hug.

a college that inspires hope that influence changes.”

The LCCC community is inspired by Johnson, as well. 

“The Lorain County Community College family is so proud of Nikita. She’s demonstrated amazing resilience in her life and in reaching her goals. She continues to amaze us with her authentic passion to make a positive impact on her community,” said LCCC President Marcia J. Ballinger, Ph.D. “Being named a DREAM Scholar is a fitting title, as Nikita is making her dreams come true, and is inspiring others to achieve their dreams, as well.”

LCCC is one of 300 community colleges in the national ATD network and one of only 11 colleges to earn ATD’s Leader College of Distinction status. In 2020, LCCC was named the Leah Meyer Austin winner, ATD’s top prize reserved for network colleges that show greatest, sustained improvements in student outcomes and student success. Through working with ATD, LCCC has made great strides in narrowing equity gaps for students in underserved populations, such as Johnson.

 In May, Johnson, 30, will be the first person in her family to earn a college degree when she graduates with an associate of arts degree from LCCC. She’ll continue on through LCCC’s University Partnership in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in social work through Youngstown State University.

Johnson has a knack for finding order out in the midst of chaos. It’s a skill that is important for a career in social work, she said.

“Helping people reach the best versions of themselves, making sure people know and understand their rights; those are big things for me,” Johnson explained.

A single mother from Lorain, Johnson said she hopes earning her associate degree and bachelor’s degree will lay a new path for herself and her four children. Her goal is to break the generational cycle of poverty that has played a pivotal role in her life.

As a child growing up in Cleveland, Johnson lived with the harsh realities of poverty, crime and violence.

“In minority communities living in poverty, children and families are placed in a constant fight or flight mode, unable to grow and be productive to make living a better place,” she said.

That environment took a heavy toll on young Johnson.

“I dropped out of school in the eighth grade. I became a teen mom when I was 15. Life was hard. I felt trapped in a life I did not choose,” she recalled.

Still, she was determined to make a better life for her new family. But she lacked the tools to make much progress, and the barriers of poverty stood in the way. Without a high school diploma, her options for employment were limited. She worked a variety of jobs, including various positions in fast food and nursing homes, but landing those jobs was a struggle.

“I applied to White Castle when I was 16 and I couldn’t pass the division part of the math test,” she recalled. “I felt shame. I knew then I needed to find a way to do better for myself and my family.”

In 2014, she decided it was time to put those thoughts into action. She took a leap of faith and signed up for the GED. She failed the math section, but passed the other parts of the test. By 2017, she was determined to pass the math portion of the test through LCCC. After multiple tries, she succeeded and earned her GED.

That achievement moment was a huge step forward and the confidence boost that Johnson needed to keep moving forward. As a GED graduate, Johnson earned a $500 scholarship to continue her education at Lorain County Community College.

Ballinger said the scholarship for GED graduates encourages students to continue their education and improve their economic station.

“Education is the most powerful driver of social and economic mobility,” Ballinger said. “When someone living in poverty earns a college degree, their chances of remaining at the bottom of the economic ladder drops from 50 percent to just 10 percent,” Ballinger said. “It’s LCCC’s mission to provide equitable access to higher education for all, no matter where a person starts out in life.”

With the momentum of earning her GED and the offer of a scholarship, Johnson knew it was the right moment to continue her education at LCCC and she enrolled right away.

“I signed up for LCCC classes that summer. At that time, my goal had always been to become a nurse and this seemed like it was my chance,” Johnson said.

She was only a few days into her nursing pre-requisite classes when a series of personal tragedies began – starting with the murder of her brother in June 2017. She dropped out of class to focus on her family and close circle of friends. By 2018, she had suffered more loss, but was ready to try college again. This time she had a new passion: to become a social worker.

The drive is personal. By earning a bachelor’s degree in social work, Johnson hopes to help young people access the skills that lead to a better future.

“Growing up in poverty, social workers a lot of times have a negative meaning associated with them. I’d like to change that. I want to show children and others the positive side of being a social worker,” she said.

Once she began her classes in the social work pathway at LCCC, Johnson quickly found a friend and mentor in sociology professor Aimee Dickinson.

“Aimee heard me tell my story to a classmate. She heard some of the hard things I’ve been through and she didn’t see something bad. She saw things in me that I’d never seen in myself before,” Johnson said.

Dickinson invited Johnson to a meeting of LCCC’s Equity Team, a group of faculty, staff and students who actively work to ensure LCCC’s commitment to equity is achieved through improving success for students from marginalized and underrepresented populations.

Johnson knew her life was changed from the first meeting.

“I attended the Equity Team meeting and I couldn’t believe what I saw: faculty and staff really fighting for their students to succeed. I shared my experiences with them and I could feel they truly listened to me and wanted to help me succeed,” Johnson said.

From that day on, Johnson said she had found her support system at LCCC. Dickinson introduced her to LCCC Student Services Navigator Kionna McIntosh-Pharms, and the two became Johnson’s biggest cheerleaders. Dickinson tragically passed away in August 2020, but Johnson said the impact on her life will never be forgotten.

“It seems like every time I am at my breaking point I receive a text from Kionna or the Equity Team giving me words of encouragement to keep moving forward,” Johnson said. “That’s all because of Aimee.”

She’s helping others find that support, too.

“Whenever I hear someone in class say they’re struggling, I let them know about the resources at LCCC, and that people genuinely want to help them. LCCC truly cares about each student and treats you like family,” Johnson said.