Mariah Johnson, 21, 1st College Graduate in Family Headed for Higher Heights

Mariah Johnson, 21, 1st college graduate in family

Refused to let distractions block her goals

By Chinta Strausberg

Mariah Johnson, 21, graduated Saturday from the University of Illinois at Chicago, majoring in Finance with Highest Distinguished honors—the first college graduate in her family.

On Sunday, she appeared on WVON “Bob Shaw” show where she announced she was immediately leaving for Austin, Texas to pursue her goal of getting a masters degree and ultimately own her own business.

Johnson was discovered by businessman Herbert Hedgeman who sponsors the “Bob Shaw, the B.S. Show” on WVON. He met her at Josephine’s Cooking Restaurant, 436 E. 79thSt., where he raised money towards her trip to Texas. “She represents the seeds of our potential success,” he said proudly looking at Johnson.

Johnson is from Chicago’s Roseland community where she attended the Gwendolyn Brook’s High School and now she has set another goal of ultimately graduating from the University of Texas. Throughout her life, Johnson has set goals like receiving a scholarship from Alabama A&M University though she had no idea how she would get there just one day before she was supposed to arrive.

Johnson did an internship with the federal government; went to the University of Maryland came back home and graduated from the UIC. That was her plan, and she hopes to maintain a 3.5 GPA.

Proud to be the first to graduate from college in her family, Johnson said, “I feel blessed to have set the goals for myself” even though she had to jump through several hurdles. “I never gave up because it is not about me. It is about helping others. That is my passion, and it is about showing my family…if you set your mind to it, you can do it. I made it clear to my brothers and sisters… that it is possible and that no matter what your background is you can do it.”

Because it’s a state residency requirement to get a scholarship in Texas, Johnson will be working at the Department of Motor Vehicle for a year. After that, she plans to earn her MBA at the University of Texas. “I have a plan…,” she said confidently.

“I am an entrepreneur at heart,” she said. “I have a passion to help people. I want to own a non-profit that caters to minority children to teach them the basics of financial management…what it means to get a checking account, what it means to set aside money for college, how to buy a house and to make a budget and stick to it.” Johnson plans to give her clients an opportunity to link with professionals “to get a taste of that profession…like an apprenticeship and a stipend for my students.”

She plans on using her experience from her two-year stint at the  U.S. Department of Commerce where she worked as an accounting intern with the goal of working full time. However, she left that golden opportunity to fulfill her passion–to work at a non-profit.

“I do know what I want and that is to help people,” she said. “I grew up in a single parent home where we lived from pay-check-to-pay check. The lights were off and many times there was no food to feed seven children. There were a lot of times when we didn’t even have a place to stay. We had to live in the shelter,” recalled Johnson.

“There were times when our mother could not get us to and back from school, and we often had to walk a country mile just to get food. I want to show children who are growing up in this situation that there is a way to succeed and just because that is your current situation, that is not your destination.

“I want to help African Americans understand financing…like what does it mean to own a home, a car that is yours and how to maintain a budget. You don’t have to live pay-check-to-pay check. That is what African Americans lack…knowledge about financing and a lot of politicians don’t bring that to minority neighborhoods.”

When Johnson was 15-years-old, she began working for the Youth Ready Chicago summer program implemented by Mayor Richard M. Daley’s where she was a youth leader. “For incoming freshmen, I served as a teacher’s assistant and planned activities for the students. We would take them around campus, play games or hold a sporting event to show them there is an academic side to school but also a fun side,” she said. “When they did start school, they would have friends they can talk to and to try to facilitate a bonding process as a class that would graduate together.”

On her mother, Johnson said she still works a minimum wage job and that they never formed a mother-daughter relationship. “We are trying to rebuild that relationship,” she said. And, to add to her familial challenges, Johnson said just two-years ago she learned the identity of her father. “My mother said she didn’t think I would want to know him.” Johnson said she is working on building up that relationship as well but intends to stick to her academic plan until she meets her goals. “I have a plan.”

After looking at her siblings and how they have children but are not married,  Johnson vowed to leave home after she graduated from high school. “I had a plan, and I carried it out. I always said I would go to college even though some people frowned their noses up at the idea. I did not know how I was going to get to Alabama, but I said I would go even if I had to catch a bus.” Johnson said she would never let “distractions” steer her off her course of success.

One of the many angels in her life was Deidra Bolin, who worked with one of her brothers. It was Bolin who took  Johnson under her wings. She was the one who drove Johnson to Alabama. Another angel was Audria Huntington, a mentor, who was an alumnus of Alabama A&M.

Chinta Strausberg is a Journalist of more than 33-years, a former political reporter and a current PCC Network talk show host. You can e-mail Strausberg at:

Former Comm. Robert Shaw, host of the "B.S." show on WVON, Mariah Johnson, 21, who graduated from the UIC Saturday and is the first in her family to do so, pose with businessman Herbert Hedgeman Sunday after her appearance on the show.

Former Comm. Robert Shaw, host of the “B.S.” show on WVON, Mariah Johnson, 21, who graduated from the UIC Saturday and is the first in her family to do so, pose with businessman Herbert Hedgeman Sunday after her appearance on the show. (Photo by Chinta Strausberg)