50-year-old Parkland grad: 'Don't let anything get in your way'

CHAMPAIGN — Standing in front of the "A Wing" building at Parkland College in 2009, Paulette Johnson grabbed the door handle, then dropped her hand.

She grasped it again, and her hand fell a second time.

This went on for about 10 minutes, she recalled.

"I said to myself, 'Paula, if you're going to do this, there's no backing out. There's just going to be completion.'

"I pulled the door and stepped in," Johnson said.

She hesitated that day because she knew she would face formidable challenges. By then, her hearing had decreased quite a bit and she was going to need some help. This time she was ready to ask for it.

Struggling on the first day is not uncommon for students, especially non-traditional students like Johnson, said Mary Catherine Denmark, director of Parkland's TRIO/Student Support Services, a federally funded program that provides support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

"It takes a lot of courage for students to get to Parkland, but then they can feel so overwhelmed" in those early days, Denmark said. Many of them will not do what Johnson did that day: Open the door and step inside.

It's a psychological struggle, added Mary Kay Smith, a student services adviser at Parkland who would later hire Johnson as a student ambassador. Although students may have succeeded at obtaining their General Educational Development certificate, many wonder if they really will be able to complete the next step, earning an associate's degree.

On Friday night, Johnson, the 50-year-old grandmother of three, received her associate's degree from Parkland College.

"I feel like a proud mom, even though we're around the same age. We're so proud of her," said Tawanna Nickens, director of Parkland's adult education program. "Everyone at Parkland College knows Paulette. She's so resourceful and takes advantage of all the services. When life challenges came in her way, she may have dropped out (of the GED program), but she was always back the next semester. She never ever gives up," Nickens said.

Born and raised in Champaign, Johnson dropped out of Centennial High School two months into her sophomore year. At 15 years old, she had a baby, left home and moved into her own apartment where she would raise her daughter.

In the ensuing years, Johnson followed a pattern she has seen other young women follow. She started the GED program, then dropped out after meeting a guy and falling in love. After they broke up, she would start up again, then take a break while in another relationship. She held various jobs over the years — she needed to support her two children. Some years she would work, go to school, quit, then start again. Along the way she married and later divorced.

Around 2005, she realized the pattern had to end.

"I needed a sense of accomplishment. I needed to do something just for me," she said. Johnson focused on obtaining her GED and after achieving that in 2009, she started in Parkland's associate's degree program.

In recent years, Nickens has tapped her to speak with current GED students. The message she delivers, Nickens said, is, "This is your community college. You can go here. You can succeed here. Don't let anything get in your way."

In addition to the challenges of raising two children as a young mother and later going through a divorce, over the years Johnson began to experience hearing loss. She's not sure what caused it.

On her first day as an enrolled student in the associate's degree program, Johnson sought assistance from the college's disability services program. They connected her with note takers and helped accommodate her disability by providing her and her instructors with audio transmitters and headsets that would help her better hear the lectures. She often visited instructors to talk about the material. She met frequently with advisers and tutors as well. And became a student ambassador.

When it got to be that she was in her car driving with the heat or air conditioning on and Johnson could not hear an ambulance siren, she met with doctors and ended up having a cochlear implant, a surgically implanted device that can help to improve sound for people who are deaf or severely hard-of-hearing.

"It gave me the sound, but it's a mechanical sound. It's different and it's like learning a whole new language," she said.

Described as a caring person who pays attention to what everyone has to say, Johnson brought in one of her suits to give to a secretary there "because she thought it would look awesome on her," Smith, the student services adviser, remembers.

"Paulette breathes life into any room she comes into," added Denmark, of the TRIO/Student Support Services.

Throughout the years, Johnson has mentored other students, sharing her own struggles in the hopes that they learn to keep on pushing forward with their goals. She can often be found talking one-on-one with students around the campus or parks.

"Parkland became my family," Johnson said.

Johnson recently was accepted into Eastern Illinois University and will pursue a bachelor's degree there. She will start this fall as a junior. Eventually she would like to pursue a master's degree in social work.

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