DALLAS – The University of North Texas at Dallas held its first commencement ceremony Dec. 19, and hundreds of guests had to watch the ceremony by closed-circuit television in classrooms throughout the campus.
The first graduating class included one grandmother who relocated to Dallas after Hurricane Katrina. Lena Johnson, who turned 60 Dec.
20, worked for the New Orleans Chamber and Greater New Orleans, Inc. for 24 years. One of 12 children, the New Orleans native had a lot of siblings to take care of, so she dropped out of high school in the 11th grade, something she said she regrets. A few years later she had her first child when she was 20. She eventually went back to school and earned her GED and later enrolled in Delgado Community College in New Orleans.
“I went through a lot of challenges because I was raising my kids by myself,” she said. She earned an associate’s degree in 1994. By that
time, she was rising through the ranks of her career with the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce.
Johnson started working at the chamber in the mailroom as a mail clerk, was promoted to information specialist in the economic development department and then became a research associate in economic development.
“We brought in new industry into the New Orleans area and helped local businesses that wanted to expand, and I would put together
She was promoted into the communications department and then moved into public policy. The chamber had a mentoring program called School to Career. School children would go to local businesses to learn skills and get exposure to various careers.
Johnson became involved in the junior achievement program during the summers where they helped kids learn how to set goals, how to follow through on their goals and how to make decisions in life. That involvement helped prepare her for what she would do at UNT Dallas 20 years later and helped her discover her passion.
The chamber split and Greater New Orleans, Inc. spun off as the economic development steering wheel for the city, she said. She continued working there in economic development until four years later when Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. Johnson stayed in Lafayette for several months hoping to get her job back, but eventually she got the bad news.
“They had to reduce staff in order to survive and me being a senior and kind of grandfathered into a lot of the perks, I was one of the first ones to go,” she said.
In March 2006 she decided to make Dallas her new home, in part because of the many opportunities here, especially in education, she said. In addition, two of her four daughters lived in Lancaster and in Grand Prairie. She moved to the area, got plugged into a local church and began volunteering.
Pursuing her passion, she became director of the Vacation Bible School. She put together the traditional spiritual program but also challenged the children to explore career paths “because I wanted them to know that going to school is part of developing who you are, and you need to know where you’re going from here.”
Johnson had an associate’s degree and always wanted to get a bachelor’s degree, so she applied and was accepted to the University of North Texas.
Her daughters jokingly said, “‘You’re going to be 60 years old. You’re going back to school?’ I told them, ‘Well guess what? I’m going to be 60 with a degree.’”
She chose to take all of her courses at what was then the UNT Dallas Campus because “It had that small, family environment. It wasn’t so big that you got lost. The smaller campus was just right. The staff here was very pleasant; you felt like you’re at home. Everybody was so willing to help you, and I just felt like this was the place for me.”
Her daughters were supportive of her going back to school. They all pitched in and took care of her, she said. In fact she switches being living with both of her daughters in the area, although she does have an apartment in Euless.
She is a member of the university’s Tau Sigma National Honor Society for transfer students with a 3.5 GPA. In her first semester, Johnson impressed herself by earning a 3.7 GPA.
“I was like, wow, I didn’t know I could do this. It has been a challenge, but it has also been a victory for me. I hope to encourage my 11 grandkids to stay in school and seek a degree and not be afraid of higher education.”
This fall Johnson served as a G-Force mentor at Kathlyn Joy Gilliam Collegiate Academy through the university’s college readiness program. Just like the New Orleans chamber program, preparing kids, connecting them with career paths and helping them identify where they fit before they get out of high school is her passion.
The school counselor at Gilliam, Lenora Brown said Johnson was fantastic working with students.
“She’s very conscientious about her work, and she’s dedicated to getting the students enrolled in whatever endeavor she’s working on, if it’s a college search or SAT preparation.”
Johnson earned a sociology degree and will continue taking classes in the spring semester to complete a second degree in May. She wants a job, but she’s interested in running her own non-profit “because I’m going to be 60, and I’m not sure what the market is like for someone in their 60s. I still feel vibrant; I still have a lot of energy left, so I think I might want to do something on my own.”
She is interested in developing a non-profit that helps kids learn what she calls “soft skills”—presentation skills, how to dress, how to take a message, how to deliver a message, how to present themselves overall—in addition to college readiness.
“Our youth have problems with style, and if you want to be the one to get the job, then you have to present yourself accordingly.”