BA, English, 1996
How did USM prepare you to achieve your goals?
I can still remember running from the mailbox with my acceptance letter from the University of Southern Mississippi. I was in tears! USM was a place of promise for my family and me. My father, the late MST Louis Johnson, spent his early years in the U.S. Air Force. A veteran of World War II, Vietnam, and Korea, my father chose the service of this country over attending college. My mother, the late Margie Walker, an entrepreneur, could not attend college because she devoted her time and talents to motherhood. I found myself at a literal crossroad, choosing college for my next chapter.
The bachelor’s degree that I eventually received was not just for me, but for my father, mother, and a great-grandmother who could only sign her name with an “X.” The degree was also for every little Black girl in Mississippi who was told she “would never be nothing!” While there, I had the privilege of serving as a senator for the SGA--Student Government Association. During my tenure, USM would become the first institution of higher learning in Mississippi to ban smoking on a college campus.
After graduating, I continued my service with various community organizations. In 2007, I served on the City of Hattiesburg’s Vision Advisory Team which crafted the Comprehensive Plan, a strategic master plan that led to the economic growth of our “Hub City.” In 2015, I was recognized as one of the 50 Leading Business Women in Mississippi by the Mississippi Business Journal, and I’ve just begun the real journey. I will be publishing various books about veteran businesses and COVID-19 recovery strategies for small businesses in the coming months. That “little Black girl from Mississippi” has accomplished more than some people thought possible. It all started at my beloved alma mater - Southern Miss To The Top #SMTTT!!!
Pursue a passion that will set your soul on fire - serving others by creating programs and offering services that improve the quality of life for communities!
What would you tell your younger self?
I would tell my younger self to focus on the future! Set goals and aspirations that
align with your God-given gifts, talents, and abilities and pursue that for which
you were created. Be actively engaged in the college experience! Join clubs, organizations,
fraternities or sororities, volunteer, and pursue leadership opportunities. Minimize
the drama. Be mindful of your interpersonal relationships. Dating in college should
never be a distraction, as it will keep you from your destiny! Connect with others
that are like-minded. They will encourage and motivate you to pursue your dreams because
your success is theirs too. There are NO limits in life, except for those imposed
on us by others. Pursue a passion that will set your soul on fire - serving others
by creating programs and offering services that improve the quality of life for communities!
Words of wisdom to Black college students?
College is a physical and figurative place of preparation. We are all destined for
greatness and for me it began at USM. The journey into adulthood will be full of opportunities
and changes, but learn something valuable in all things. Don’t dread difficult situations
because in them we either learn what to do or not to do! A college education will
prepare you both personally and professionally. Relish everything college has to offer
- your education will take you places you only dreamed of, but your character will
sustain you. Commit to life-long learning. Look for leadership opportunities in your
college, communities, and career. Great leaders are servants. Where there are no opportunities,
create them by volunteering! And, just when you think you have arrived, you have really
only just begun! Be the changing agent and represent USM well.
Was college worth the investment?
Yes, college is well worth the investment! The educational system in the U.S. is designed to offer a minimum, basic education in grades K-12. The Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 included responsibilities of the nation for an education system. Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution granted Congress the power to lay and collect taxes to provide for the general welfare of the United States. It is under this “general welfare” clause that the federal government has assumed the power to initiate educational activity in its own right and to participate jointly with states, agencies, and individuals in educational activities.
It is, however, the college education that provides specialized academic instruction, in addition to personal growth and self-esteem; advancement opportunities; increased earning potential; preparation for specialized career; economic stability; marketability and networking opportunities. As a mother and economic developer, I can attest to the effects of an educated workforce on the local economy. The U.S. workforce is more diverse than ever. Jobs in STEM fields are on the rise, and the high-tech industry is booming but the way we work has changed. College students consider a course of study that supports multiple disciplines in various industries. Opportunities abound and so should you!
College is also a “coming of age” when we leave adolescence behind for adulthood.
While some refer to college as a time of exploration, it may be the most pivotal time
in our growth and development. I left my mother’s home as a young woman with aspirations,
but I returned with a degree, colleagues and a career. I will forever cherish the
prolific professors that shared their extensive knowledge through classroom instruction
and wisdom while serving as sponsors for various clubs and university activities.
It was at USM that I learned - “getting into the room was no longer acceptable, I
needed a seat at the table,” words to live by from retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Fred
The impact of The Unheard Word is felt throughout the country as those of us who were challenged by its writings are now authors, parents, educators, professors, pastors and community organizers.
What was the most impactful topic covered in The Unheard Word?
The Unheard Word was the “voice” for Black students at USM! The Unheard Word provided relevant news and information, current events, and cultural considerations
for Black students at the university. The most impactful topic covered by The Unheard Word was a feature chronicling minority enrollment at majority institutions and USM’s services
and supports to increase completion rates among Black students. A periodical for a
people for such a time as this! The impact of The Unheard Word is felt throughout the country as those of us who were challenged by its writings
are now authors, parents, educators, professors, pastors and community organizers.
To my knowledge, The Unheard Word was the only minority-serving periodical at a four-year institution in Mississippi
at the time. Thank you for your visionary leadership and legacy, Dr. Riva Brown, founder
of The Unheard Word.