Between her time as a student ('03 BA Interdisciplinary Studies-Social Science) and administrative faculty member, Tracy Johnson has been at UNLV for 20 years. Today, as the Graduate College’s associate director of retention, progression, and completion, she helps graduate students progress through their program and celebrates their accomplishments at commencement.
Tell us about a time in your life you were daring.
Valentine’s Day 2009, I went skydiving. I have a fear of falling. I was in the last year of my 20s still holding onto this fear, so I needed to do something to face this. I called to get an appointment; and about 12 hours later, I was getting into my jumpsuit and signing liability waivers. I opted for the video as a reminder of my own strength and desire to conquer this fear.
The funny thing … the guy I was tandem skydiving with asked if I had any last words, and I was so scared I couldn’t say anything. I just shook my head no. I watched the video later wishing I had said some big profound thing about how I felt, but nothing. I guess I couldn’t really put into words what this moment meant to me.
I am not a fan of planes. There were six of us on the plane, and I was the first to jump. I got to the edge of the plane, and the wind was so strong that I clinched onto my instructor. He said, “OK, get ready to jump … go.” I couldn’t move. Thankfully he pushed me out.
There was about a 45-second drop, but it doesn’t feel like you’re falling after the initial jump. You feel like you're floating. I remember thinking how proud I was of myself. I just kept thinking, “I did it. Oh my goodness, I did it.” With cheeks flapping, I just kept looking out — not really down because of the whole fear of falling thing.
The parachute opened and as it settled and we were floating, it was quite peaceful. One thing I did not expect was the instructor asking me to hold onto the handles to guide the parachute while he adjusted something. Um, what? Adjust, what? What's going on? Of course, all these thoughts were racing in my mind. It was February, it was cold up there, my hands were basically frozen to the handles, and all I could think was “Don’t let go. Don’t let go.” We had a smooth landing and checked that bucket-list item off.
You just won Megabucks and want to give back to the university. What would you support and why?
I would support scholarships for non-traditional students. I am amazed every day by the stories and persistence that these students have. Veterans and service members returning to civilian life or attending for the first time; those who are returning after being in the workforce for 20 years and need a degree to advance; those who started right out of high school, but life got in the way of completion; stay-at-home moms who sent off their last kid to college and now it’s their turn; or those wanting to complete a bucket-list item.
I have worked with many adult learners during my career at UNLV, which led me to join, and now chair, the Re-entry Scholarship Committee. I was the founding faculty advisor for Rebel Women Vets, a student organization specific to the needs of women veterans. At the time there were more than 300 female veterans on campus.
I am the past chair and current member of the Adult Learner Advisory Board, which is a volunteer group of UNLV employees representing all advising centers, the Military and Veterans Services Center, the office of online education, UNLV Libraries, Division of Education Outreach, the Graduate College, and other support services — all invested in improving support for this population at UNLV. One amazing resource that the Adult Learner Advisory Board puts together every biennium is the 50-page Rebel Ready Guide, which highlights all support services on campus. They will also put on the Living Your Best Life: Balancing School, Work, and Family Summit this spring, so keep an eye out.
Why the Graduate College?
I worked in undergraduate academic advising for more than 16 years. During most of those conversations with students, we talked about what was next, the goal, the dream. Many times, graduate school was on their mind, with a ton of questions attached. I would refer them to resources to find the perfect program at UNLV or elsewhere, websites to help in their search, terminology used, processes, and graduate coordinators, along with some questions to ask to be prepared for that meeting. During students’ undergraduate program, they are introduced to research done in their chosen field; but at the graduate level, they have the opportunity to contribute to that research.
In my current role as the associate director of retention, progression, and completion (RPC), I have the opportunity to work with students once they are admitted through graduation. It is important that in my role, I am knowledgeable about not only program requirements, but resources, forms, and financial support opportunities. I add to the conversation and look at where we can be better through more continued outreach and listening to the needs of our students.
Graduation is a happy time. I have worked the spring and fall commencement ceremonies since I started at UNLV and look forward to the familiar faces, hugs, high-fives, and cheering graduates on. Knowing that I had a small piece in that process energizes me for the next semester.
What would your last meal be?
My last meal would be a variety of my favorite foods: hearts of palm and baby corn with ranch. It is difficult to find good hearts of palm at the grocery store. I’m still on the hunt. If you know of any stores, please let me know. I will always order hearts of palm if I see it on a menu. Piero's has an amazing heart of palm salad with avocado. Texas de Brazil used to have hearts of palm and baby corn in their salad bar, but I have not been back since realizing they no longer do. I am also partial to items on a menu with avocado — a salad, sandwich, or even ordering it on the side. What can I say? I like what I like.
One of my favorite quotes is by Dr. Seuss, who said, “Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” I tend to focus on the next thing I have to do and have to remind myself to live in the moment. I have three toddlers — my 4-year-old girl/boy twins and my 3-year-old daughter — and I live for their retelling of their favorite memories. I am thankful that in the purest form my kids remind me every day how amazing they are and how thankful I am to have them. My older daughter will randomly tell me she loves me a few times a day, and I am not looking forward to the day THAT becomes a memory. I am, however, looking forward to all the moments that will become memories.
The second is, “If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.” I have this quote on my signature line, as I believe in the transparency of knowledge to help someone. I don't just want to do something for you ... I want to show you how to do it and hope you share with others who may not know.
In the Graduate College, we have the Grad Rebel Gateway, an amazing system that is so dynamic; but, to the student just trying to find their forms, it can feel overwhelming. I had a student who came in this week to ask what he still needed to complete his degree. I walked him through where to find the necessary forms for his program. He said that was so helpful. With my background in academic advising, that wasn't the end of my conversation. I asked him what was next, and he said maybe another master’s. I said, “Have you thought about a Ph.D.?” He is finishing his master’s this year, so I wanted to see if the second master’s or a Ph.D. would align with his goals. He asked if we had an Ed.D., since he would like to go into administration. I walked him through how to search the different programs in the degrees directory and found an Ed.D. program. He had the biggest smile and said thank you. I got more out of this meeting than I expected to. For all those reading this, there really are people at UNLV who just want to help where they can, so don't be afraid to ask.
Shh … taking half days to go to Hot N Juicy Crawfish for lunch and then to the movie theater before picking up the kiddos from school. I have three preschoolers, so it is difficult to find some "me time." I love going to the movies in the middle of the day, by myself, when the theater is near-empty and just being able to zone into the movie, which may not always be kid-friendly, and laugh.
Name a person on campus you’d like to thank.
I would like to thank Dr. Liz Baldizan, faculty emerita. It is impossible to count all the ways she made an impact on my life. We first met when I wanted to get more involved with the adult learner student population at UNLV. She was the director of Campus2Community and oversaw the Re-Entry Scholarship Committee. We had coffee to talk about my “why,” and she asked me to join the committee. I remember not wanting that conversation to end. A couple years later, I would chair the Re-Entry Scholarship Committee. She has an amazing way of inspiring and motivating people through a genuine passion for her work. I feel so very fortunate to know her and thankful for her willingness to help me grow.
I would also like to thank all the advisors and staff who have worked at the Wilson Advising Center over the last 17 years. You know who you are. I started working there at the age of 23, right after finishing my bachelor’s degree. I grew up there. I learned from the seasoned professionals, from the new advisors, from the ones who plan on retiring in the field, and the colleagues who have moved to other schools but still keep in touch. And because of the disciplined student, the honors student, the student-athlete, the student who got a B for the first time, the first-generation student, the student veteran, the single mom, the stay-at-home dad, the student on probation, the student up to their ears in debt, and so many more, I learned to really listen.