Jamil Johnson was born into education. His mother was just three weeks from giving birth when she earned her bachelor's in elementary education/special education from the University of Illinois.
Now Johnson is a visiting assistant professor of higher education, coming to UNLV from the University of Central Florida. Here, Johnson explores how Black men interact with higher education and how universities can do more to engage with and retain students of color.
What brought you to UNLV?
The mountains and weather! While the scenery is beautiful, UNLV is a place that I am proud to call home. I appreciate the diversity of our campus. Yet, I recognize that, for many students, it is important for them to see diversity among faculty; thus, I am excited to mentor our students and share my journey as an African American man.
I am also looking forward to giving voice to the African American male population who may experience imposter syndrome that many of us face as we navigate college. In addition to working with my colleagues across campus, we have a wonderful community that also needs voice and support, and I am excited to continue my efforts in Southern Nevada.
Tell us about a professional accomplishment.
As a professor and mentor, I am most proud when I see my students accomplish what they perceive as impossible. Their success is my success. I love seeing my students successfully navigate the uncertainty of obtaining undergraduate and graduate degrees, participate in co-curricular and high-impact practices, present at national and international conferences, choose the job they love, and publish in the top-tier journals.
What do you do in your downtime?
My day starts with me walking for about two hours each morning. I use this time to self-reflect and exercise. Nothing beats watching the sunrise over our beautiful mountains.
My absolute favorite show is The Golden Girls, and I know every episode by heart.
I love to travel and have set a long-term goal to visit every continent in the next 10 years. While COVID-19 has limited my international travel, I am enjoying parts of the United States. Traveling for me is about experiencing the culture, living conditions, and food that make up a community.
Any favorite books on your nightstand?
Becoming by Michelle Obama. This book is powerful and a true testament to storytelling and giving voice to those who are voiceless.
Talk to us a bit about the importance of first-year seminar programs for undergraduate retention.
Prior to my current role as visiting assistant professor of higher education, I supervised the first-year seminar at the University of Central Florida for six years.
First-year seminar courses are integral to the student experience as they transition from high school to college. It provides a wonderful opportunity for the institution to structure student success. Students identify co-curricular activities that relate to their career interests, as well as hone their college-level writing and research skills. The courses also foster mentoring relationships between faculty and students and amongst peer groups.
These relationships create a sense of belonging and connection to the campus while encouraging students to engage in conversations related to their personal, social, and academic development. All of these combined promote retention from the first year to the second year of their collegiate journeys.
But the work doesn’t stop with these seminars. We need to invest in the long-term success of students with support in the remaining years, encourage persistence, and prepare them for postgraduate careers or studies.
Who were your mentors?
About three weeks before I was born, my mom earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education/special education from the University of Illinois Chicago. You could say I was trained to be an educator from birth. My mom took me to her school many times and, at the time, I didn’t realize the significance of what that meant to see her teaching and engaging with students.
Growing up on the south side of Chicago as a Black man, options were severely limited and life outcomes were disparate. My mom made it very clear that I was expected to go to college and she kept me on track by helping me develop self-efficacy. Regardless of what life throws at you, you push forward and attain your goals.
What do you think is the role of education administrators in supporting Black and Latinx student and faculty success?
We need to create and maintain spaces where students and faculty can connect with one another with programming that speaks to their experiences. Students are observant, and when societal events occur, they are looking to the institution to not just address it but support them.
From a faculty perspective, we have to do a better job of mentoring Black and Latinx students to connect them to the important opportunities that will ensure their success. Oftentimes, Black and Latinx students do not participate in opportunities simply because they do not know about them. Faculty-mentor relationships are critical to the success of our students. It can make a world of difference when we ask students of color the simple question, “How are you doing?” and really listen to what they have to say,