As she walked across the stage at Trojan Arena last month to accept her degree from Troy University Chancellor Dr. Jack Hawkins, Jr., Angela Johnson could only think of her parents.
From an early age Johnson’s mother and father, Korean and Nicaraguan immigrants, respectively, instilled in her the importance of education.
Given their many struggles, along with her own, she felt a sense of satisfaction in achieving their dream for her, particularly given her own struggles that coincided with her pursuit of a college degree.
But, as President Theodore Roosevelt once indicated, nothing worth having comes easy.
Born in Korea, Johnson began her college journey back in 2004. The Watertown, New York native began taking college courses after graduating high school in the small city located near Fort Drum.
Soon, she found the stress of work and school to be overwhelming, opting to drop out of college and pursue the life her father chose after he left Nicaragua — the U.S. military.
“I joined the Army for a better opportunity in life,” Johnson said. “While in the Army, I would enroll in classes here and there. I was deployed overseas and would enroll in class several times, but I kept having to drop out due to a lack of connectivity and the inability to know for sure that we would have continual internet access.”
Johnson spent the next five years in and out of Iraq, an experience that changed her life in ways she’s still feeling.
“I was deployed for a total of 27 months. It was pretty tough,” she said. “My first deployment was during the troop surge back in 2007. Our brigade only had enough resources for one brigade’s worth of soldiers, about 1,000 soldiers. All of a sudden, add 3,000 more soldiers. Everything was really tight, and there was a struggle for a while on top of the fact we were in one of the deadliest places in Iraq.”
That place was Baqubah, site of the second Battle of Baqubah in 2007, a deadly skirmish that led to dozens of U.S. casualties.
“I have a sleeping disorder from my time overseas, and I still suffer from PTSD and anxiety to this day,” Johnson said.
Eventually, Johnson found herself at Fort Bliss in Texas, where she again tried to resume her college career.
“I took a couple more classes, but my focus was really on my career and I couldn’t put in the effort I wanted to for school,” she said.
In 2012, her journey hit another unexpected roadblock when she discovered she wasn’t a legal U.S. citizen.
“I was in military intelligence and somehow I slipped through the cracks,” Johnson said. “I didn’t have proof of citizenship. I found out in 2012 and got my citizenship May 30, 2013.”
During that time, Johnson was busy building a career and, over time, finding love.
“I worked after getting out of the Army, and I owned my own business for a while. I then met my husband, and I told him I really want to finish school. I told him, ‘I hate I don’t have my degree,’” she said.
Through her husband’s father, she learned of Dr. Hawkins, a family friend.
“My husband told me his father is friends with Dr. Hawkins at Troy University, and he was sure they could get me enrolled in school there,” Johnson said. “I decided to enroll, and I didn’t reach out to Dr. Hawkins. I just started quietly going to school there online. From there, I continued to take as many classes as possible so I could finish within the GI Bill timeframe. They don’t give you a lot of time, but they will pay for everything.”
Her TROY online experience began in January 2018 with the help of her youngest sister, who helped and guided her through the realities of online learning.
Unfortunately, life dealt Johnson another devastating blow in 2019, when her sister died.
“I saw my grades starting to slip after her death,” she said. “Even though I wanted to be an accounting major, I couldn’t put in the effort I wanted to. I switched to another field in the College of Business.”
Shortly thereafter, Johnson became pregnant, shifting priorities for her and her husband.
Suddenly, finishing school became a more urgent matter, and it coincided with a global pandemic.
“I was finishing up my last couple semesters taking about 18 credit hours while working 40 to 50 hours a week and pregnant during a quarantine,” Johnson said. “It was (stressful), but luckily for me I didn’t know any different. I was used to stressful.”
Despite the natural temptations that arose to quit over the years, Johnson could never forget the words of her parents.
“I remember my father, when I was very young, saying to me he didn’t have a lot of money or power or anything to give us, that only thing he could hope for us was to have an education,” Johnson said. “My father grew up in Nicaragua during the revolution. My father had left, and when he left the country he was (in) medical school, so he never got his degree. In Korea, my mom is one of nine, and girls at that time did not have the same benefits as boys, so my mom didn’t go to college.”
Despite the pandemic, pregnancy, years of obstacles and pain, Johnson finally reached the finish line in July 2020, earning a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration in Global Business with a concentration in human resource management.
“Angela Johnson is the shining example of the TROY spirit,” Dr. Hawkins said. “At TROY, we serve those who serve, and she has served our country with distinction. As Alabama’s International University, we serve students from around the world, and Angela has embodied the American dream as she has pursued her degree not only as veteran, but as an immigrant. She has overcome much in order to be able to earn her degree, and we are extremely proud of her.”
Because she was still pregnant, and because of the pandemic, she was unable to walk at commencement last year. Thanks to Dr. Hawkins, she was given that opportunity this May.
“I felt at that time it was too much to ask the University to let me walk almost a whole year later, but Dr. Hawkins decided to offer that chance to me,” Johnson said.
For Johnson, whose baby was born just three weeks after she received her degree last July, walking across the stage at commencement brought a sense of fulfilment from her childhood, while also representing a lesson she can teach her son.
“My younger sister got her degree, my baby sister had just received hers when I started at TROY. She was working on her master’s degree when she died. It felt like I had joined the ranks of my sisters, but I also felt like my parents could finally say, ‘All my girls finished school,’” Johnson said. “Walking really gave me evidence besides a piece of paper of graduating. Because my parents are immigrants, and because we are a mixed family, I want my son to see that, no matter what, he can still do it. Even though it took me a long time, I want him to see the importance of an education even if he never ends up working in his field. Just learning how to learn, how to process information, it’s really important.”