2023 Beinecke Scholar Emily Johnson works to create opportunities for first-generation college students
First-generation college student Emily Johnson is determined to help those like her upon her graduation from The Ohio State University.
Born in Huntington W. Va., Johnson moved to southeast Ohio, attending Chesapeake High School on the Ohio – West Virginia border. In a town of less than 1,000 people, she was determined to go to college.
Initially, Johnson was unsure if she would attend Ohio State, but when she received the Land Grant Opportunity Scholarship, she knew she was packing her bags for Columbus.
“I almost didn’t apply to Ohio State. I applied to my hometown college and another school that was just a little closer to me. I thought that Ohio State was a reach, but then my friend’s mom talked me into applying, so I did,” she said. “When I ended up getting the Land Grant Scholarship, it just felt like it was meant to be.”
During her sophomore year, Johnson helped recruit fellow first-generation students to create the first honor society at Ohio State specifically designed for first-generation college students. On April 13, 2022, the induction ceremony for the Epsilon Zeta Chapter of Alpha Alpha Alpha National Honor Society was held, with Johnson serving as the chapter president and co-founder.
“The goal of Tri-Alpha is to recognize the resilience of high-achieving first-generation college students,” Johnson said. “To give them a space to take pride in the work they have done. It is hard to be a first-generation college student and it does take a level of resilience that people who are not in that position might not realize.”
She added that the entire collegiate experience is different for first-generation students, specifically as it pertains to the future of their personal lives.
“The way we navigate the college experience, starting with just the application process, is completely different. We are not just changing the trajectory of our own lives, but changing the trajectory of our families as well,” she said. “The point of Tri-Alpha is to recognize the students that are going above and beyond and give them their credit for the hard work they put in. It is my favorite thing that I have gotten to be a part of, and I am really excited how it continues to grow next year and eventually when I leave Ohio State.”
“Ohio State is a place that genuinely wants its students to succeed. I never have had an idea that was too big or a goal that was unattainable."
Johnson has one year left in her undergraduate career. At the end of her third year, she was named a 2023 Beinecke Scholar, which awards approximately twenty scholarships annually to undergraduate students in their junior year who intend to pursue a PhD or MFA in the arts, humanities or social sciences.
Johnson is currently studying for the GRE so she can pursue her PhD in sociology after completing her undergraduate degree in the Department of Sociology. Ultimately, she wants to help advance the collegiate careers of those with similar backgrounds and eliminate the obstacles that face first-generation college students.
“I love the field, and I love the research that I do. My motivation for all of it is I want financially disadvantaged kids to go to college,” she said. “With a PhD in sociology, that will put me in a place where I can work in a faculty position or in administration within a university. In either of those positions, I can help first-generation students from low-income backgrounds become more comfortable in the college space and make it more accessible to them.”
Regardless of where Johnson pursues her PhD, she said she is eternally grateful for the opportunities Ohio State gave her as she starts to look ahead to the next chapter of her life.
“Ohio State is a place that genuinely wants its students to succeed. I never have had an idea that was too big or a goal that was unattainable,” she said. “There have always been people who have wanted to help me along the way. I do take pride in my accomplishments, but I wouldn’t be where I am without the people who helped me get here.”