Meet VALLEY’s Fall 2022 Self-Improvement Section Opener: Isaiah Johnson

Photo by Jenny Lee & Elinor Franklin

The sky really is the limit for poised and professional Isaiah Johnson, a second-year student majoring in international politics with a minor in French.

Johnson’s dream job?

“President of the United States,” he says. “I want to be in the highest position possible to help people.” 

Johnson was born in Brooklyn, New York, and he later moved to the Poconos with his mom, dad, sister and grandfather. After his parents’ divorce, he and his sister lived with their mom and grandfather for a couple of years. However, following his grandfather’s death in 2017, Johnson moved in with his dad at 16 years old. The loss of his grandfather and moving in with his dad marked a difficult period of Johnson’s life because it was a tumultuous time of personal challenges and self-discovery. 

“I felt very, very alone,” he says. “That’s actually what brought me to Penn State.”

Johnson made a few different decisions when selecting where to go to college. He first committed to the University of Miami, followed by American University and then Georgetown University.  

During the pandemic, Johnson had a close friend who he worked with at ShopRite back home in the Poconos. At the time, she was a current Penn State student, and she talked to Johnson about her experiences. Johnson felt unsure if the University of Miami, his original decision, would provide him the feeling of security and home that he craved.

“I wanted a community town,” he says.

Johnson’s friend introduced him over FaceTime to the University Park Undergraduate Association, or UPUA, Vice President at the time. During this conversation, he learned more about Penn State and UPUA. Johnson then went to visit the campus for himself.

“Once I stepped out of that car and ventured off from my family, it definitely felt like a place that I could call home. And that’s the word I was looking for,” he says.

While living with his mom, Johnson rarely lived in one house for more than a few months, so he was seeking a safe place to call home.

I never got to experience a home until coming to Penn State.

When Johnson came to campus as a student in August 2021, he applied for UPUA First-Year Council. 

“I have a passion of public service, so it was very easy to integrate myself into a field where these student leaders are prompted and motivated to serve our community,” he says. “And it was the perfect place for me.”

Johnson first got involved in politics thanks to the influence of his grandfather, who was an assemblyman in the city.

“When I was six years old, he took me with him to, I think, Prospect Park and we passed out his campaign flyers,” Johnson says.

Johnson and his grandfather talked to all kinds of people, and hearing their stories and perspectives motivated Johnson to help his community. Now, as a second-year student, he is the UPUA Representative for the College of Liberal Arts.

“We try to focus on if a good idea is going to be effective in getting connected and integrated into Penn State’s population,” he says. “I feel like we could be more effective with that in UPUA. Personally, I want to think of ways to get out there more in reference to each individual student.”

In order to have more personalized experiences with individual students on campus, Johnson also became a Resident Assistant this year. As an RA, Johnson talks to many first-year students and fellow Liberal Arts students who approach him about getting involved in UPUA-led events, letting him see the effect that his work has had. One goal of Johnson’s is to make tuition finances more inclusive to minorities and other people who need it.

“If I was [UPUA] President of Penn State, I would try my very best to talk to student leaders, talk to the Bursar Office, to do whatever I can to make tuition more inclusive and accessible,” he says.

Undoubtedly, Johnson is a student and leader with a full load of work on his plate. Johnson plans out each and every day to help keep his responsibilities organized and manage his mental health.

“With all of that on me at once, I think it’s very important to have mental health days,” he says. “When I’m planning out my week, it can be overwhelming, so I take everything day by day.”

For many students, college can be a challenging time, but it is also a time marked with self-improvement. You may feel that you’ve changed or grown, and Johnson has too. 

Being at Penn State has allowed me to do something that I’ve always struggled at, and that’s put myself in other people’s shoes.

During his time at Penn State, Johnson feels that he’s grown into a more empathetic and understanding person. 

“[Being at] Penn State and being around all these new people and being able to open my mind more has shifted me into a reality where I can effectively put myself in people’s shoes and see things from their perspective,” he says.

Empathy is an essential quality for public servants to have, as it allows them to gain a deeper understanding of how their work can impact individuals.

“When you’re making policies and legislation aimed to help your community, you need to know what your constituents are going through,” he says. “You have to be able to see it from their point of view to make sure you can efficiently solve the problem.”

Johnson advises students to get up and try again when they fail. Whether that is socially, academically or professionally, Johnson has seen the positive effects of getting back up from a personal failure. He cites a time during his first year when a potential future living situation did not work out because of a conflict between his friends. 

“I was devastated for days, thinking I failed, socially I failed, I’m not going to make lifelong friends here … something told me every time to just get back up and try again,” he says. 

As a second-year student now, Johnson has found what he has been looking for. From a turbulent childhood to bustling college life, Johnson has faced obstacles. No doubt, he will face more obstacles throughout his life; however, he has the tools he needs to take on those challenges and take his goals to the sky. Or maybe the White House. 

When there are no ceilings, the sky is the limit.

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