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Pushing Through

Professor tells her journey from being
a student to finding her dream job

By LaKyndra Larkin

Dr. Jill is a professor of English at Tyler Junior College

If anyone were to walk into Dr. Jill
Johnson’s office at Tyler Junior
College in Jenkins Hall, they would
be able to see the passion she has for the
arts and literature.

Her office space is small, but she utilizes her space
well. When one first walks in, their eyes would be
drawn to a framed picture she captured at a play.
Beside that, is a vast collage of drawings saved from
her students they have drawn for her. Her desk
on either side of her computer is neatly stacked
yet cluttered with student assignments, notes, and
papers and more frames of ripped copies from books
or scripts. She also has a little table set with a chair
behind her desk. A bucket of candy is set in the
middle of it for anyone to help themselves to.


By the looks of her office, it’s clear the passion for
literature is there and has always been present in her
life. If she had to, she could prove it by the diploma
of a doctorate framed on her wall she received in
Dec. 2018. Her journey though was not easy, as
anyone earning a degree in a graduate program, but
how she accomplished her goal is unique in itself, as
this is what pushes her to be the best she can be for
her students at TJC.


Johnson has a doctorate in studies of literature,
and her concentration is philosophical novel,
modern, postmodernism and film in adaptation. She
is an English professor at TJC and feels as if she has
her dream job. This is due to her love of teaching
that she initially thought she wouldn’t like while
earning her master’s degree.


“Originally, I got my master’s just to do
something. I didn’t want to get a real job. My
school, if you taught for them, they would pay for
your school and you would get a small stipend. So,
I fell into that kind of accidentally and just loved
(teaching) — absolutely loved it,” Johnson said, her
eyes beaming as she thought about it. “I absolutely
loved teaching the first day I taught it. I just
thought this is so fun.”


Realizing she loved teaching, and after earning
her master’s from Liberty University in Virginia,
Johnson figured she’d go for a doctorate and to also
be close to family.


“The job market was scarce, so I figured I’d go for
a Ph.D. I went to the University of Texas at Dallas
to be close to my grandmother, who was ill at the
time,” she said.


As she started her journey furthering her
education, it seemed similar to a master’s degree at
first, which was not a huge deal. The workload was
similar with the same courses, but because of her
location in Dallas, expenses and the cost of living
were higher than in Virginia, and things started to
get tough for Johnson.


“I didn’t have any roommates when I had like five
before in Virginia, and I was like, ‘Shoot, I need to
get a job,’” she said. “So, I got a job as a high school
English teacher at Grace.”


By this time, things were OK for Johnson. Since
she loved teaching and thought high school was
OK, she figured she did not need a doctorate
because things were getting stressful.


“I had to drive two hours to go to class and back.
I was also working full time at the high school, and
I was just getting super tired and worn,” she said,
shaking her head disappointingly. “I couldn’t see the
value in a Ph. D.”


Before losing complete hope, she called her
former professor from Liberty University, who was
a chair of her master’s thesis. Johnson talked to her
about how she was feeling and asked her what’s the
point of a doctorate anyway. Johnson starts to laugh,
remembering the phone call.


“She was like, ‘Jill—stop! There’s more you learn
through the Ph.D. work. There’s stuff that will bleed
into other areas of your life. Even if you don’t want
to teach at a university. You’re probably going to find
it valuable.’” Johnson’s demeanor changed completely
as she explains how she did not care what her
professor said. “But I was like, ‘Whatever!’ and I
actually withdrew from the school.”


Johnson wanting to quit is not surprising in the
graduate program. According to an article from
United States Census Bureau, in 2018, 48.2 million
people graduated with a bachelor’s degree, but that
number significantly drops to 4.5 million people
completing a doctorate. Many drop out due to the
demands of a doctorate degree or right before the
dissertation. Johnson tried to seek support from her
fellow colleagues in the program, but they had all
dropped out.


Feeling alone, Johnson had to tell her dean at
UT-Dallas about the news. When she told him she
was dropping out, he told her he was going to hold
off on dropping her entirely for a week and that
if he had not heard from her within that week, he
would drop her. He believed she could do it and did
not want her to give up.


Knowing this, Johnson explains it’s the little
things that made her want to quit. She still had to
drive two hours and back for class, worked full time
at the high school, and things were difficult. If she
needed help from her professors, she’d have to call
and meet them at awkward times of the day or meet
at their house. This was a pain for her and because
she was so shy “there was just so much extra work.
There’s a lot of anxiety in things that some people
may be strong in, and I do not because I am shy,”
she said. “But when you’re working on your Ph.D.,
you have to reach out to your professors and ask
them to be on your committee and do special stuff
for you. That was tough.”


During that week of feeling lost and ready to quit
everything, Johnson emailed one more professor
about her decision of wanting to quit. After
realizing so many people were rooting for her and
considering all the conversations she had with her
professors, she knew their motivation is what kept
her from dropping out.


“After reading a lengthy email that I shouldn’t
drop, I knew I had the support to make it through.
It meant the world to me, and it was just so amazing
to realize that,” Johnson said, touching her heart.
Johnson kept working toward her doctorate. Even
with the support around her, that did not change
the coursework.


“The dissertation was super painful because you
have to keep editing it. You have to keep working
at it. But in the end, it felt so great to be done,”
she said, smiling remembering finally completing
the program. “I’d really recommend it to anyone
interested. This is what my chair said to me, and I
think it’s true. ‘Everyone in the Ph.D. program has
a day, not that they’re just thinking about dropping,
they are literally dropping. They have to talk
themselves out of it or have someone else to talk
them out of it. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed with
everything.’”


Finally, in Dec. 2018, Johnson graduated with her
doctorate in literature. She describes the day she got
her diploma and walking the stage; she was grateful
she had the support not to give up.


“It was so amazing. I always recommend walking
the stage. My parents took me out for cake at my
favorite cake place in Dallas. I even bought myself
season tickets to the Dallas All-Star game,” she
said, laughing embarrassed about her reward. “If you
accomplish a big thing, treat yourself. My parents
always made me feel special when I accomplished
something.”


Johnson is now an English professor at TJC,
enjoying her job and being able to do what she
loves. Because of her success, her students recognize
it and enjoy her classes and find her as a true
inspiration.


“Dr. Johnson was nice, and I like how she would
really get into her lectures. I remember one time I
had a situation, and I couldn’t make it to class, so I
emailed her, and we talked in person. She was very
understanding and kind. She’s a sweet professor, and
I know she’ll continue to grow into being a greater
one in the future,” said Nautica Jackson, a former
student of Johnson’s English class.


Many doors are opening for Johnson since she’d
earned her doctorate. Johnson explains she enjoyed
her journey and it still continues.


“I like my journey. Even with almost withdrawing,
I feel like I have a sense of control,” Johnson said.
“I even got chosen to represent TJC in Poland for a
professor exchange program.” She beams excited for
the trip, happy for the opportunity TJC has given
her for being an excellent professor in her field.
“It’ll be next spring for a week, and I’ll guest lecture,
which is really exciting, and I don’t have to pay for it
at all. I see myself at TJC for a long time.”


Johnson’s love for teaching is shown everywhere
she goes and through her lectures. Earning a
doctorate is a milestone Johnson will treasure for
years to come. Although it was not easy, she does
not regret anything that happened.


“Don’t be stopped by hard stuff, and don’t do
everything at once,” she said. “The trick to finishing
is to take things in slow chucks rather than all
together and plan ahead. Seek a support system and
always walk the stage. It’s amazing, and it’s really a
special moment.”

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