Michael Johnson, '19

November 26, 2018
Senior explores servant leadership through mentoring, public policy

When he gave the senior remarks Nov. 5 at Prelude, the Jepson School of Leadership Studies’ student induction ceremony, Michael Johnson, ’19, looked and sounded every bit a leader.

But he can remember a time when he was anything but.

“In middle school, I was in trouble a lot and at risk for going to an alternative school for kids with disciplinary problems,” the Ashland, Va., native said. “I didn’t have a father figure in my life, so my mom signed me up for Big Brothers Big Sisters.”

There, he met Michael Hobson, the man who became his mentor.

“Having a mentor changed my life,” Johnson said. “He was the only person I knew who had gone to college. He started to instill in me the idea of going to college. He helped me study for SATs and took me on college tours. If not for his mentorship, I would not be here at UR.”

Johnson said he chose University of Richmond because he wanted to pursue the philosophy, politics, economics, and law (PPEL) major. He decided to major in leadership studies as well, after his advisor picked up on his interest in social change and suggested he consider taking some courses at Jepson.

“I wanted to bring what I was passionate about outside the classroom into the classroom,” said Johnson, who had become a mentor himself his senior year of high school. Jepson let him do just that.

“I was coming from a rural area, so my Justice and Civil Society class introduced me to all the systemic inequities in urban public schools,” he said.

He connected what he was learning in Justice and Civil Society to his volunteer work at a Northside Richmond public middle school, where he has been mentoring since his second semester through the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement.

At the end of his sophomore year, Johnson became president of the UR Mentoring Network, a student organization that recruits and supports mentors to work with low-income high school students. Mentors from this group volunteer in the Armstrong High School Leadership Program from 3-5 p.m. Mondays.

“We focus on three pillars: academic preparedness, personal development, and college readiness,” Johnson said.

Classes and cocurricular activities continue to inform Johnson's volunteer experiences. He explored his interest in education in Dr. Thomas Shields’ Education and Society course. Then Dr. Shields served as his faculty mentor when Johnson received a Burhans Civic Fellowship to intern as a Governor's Fellow in the Children’s Cabinet under Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration in summer 2017.

“The Children’s Cabinet focuses on promoting equity and justice for children across the state of Virginia,” Johnson said. Its multiagency approach to addressing complex issues reminded Johnson of the multidisciplinary approach his leadership studies and PPEL majors take to analyzing complex issues.

In summer 2018, Johnson completed his Jepson internship at University of Minnesota’s Public Policy and International Affairs Fellowship Program, where he took five graduate-level classes and conducted public policy research in tandem with local nonprofits.

Back on campus, Johnson is hard at work on his Jepson honors thesis, an analysis of providing cash incentives to low-income students to improve their academic outcomes. He is also applying to public policy graduate programs.

Whether working on his thesis, mentoring youth, or pondering system-wide change, Johnson draws on his internal drive to improve outcomes for underrepresented individuals.

“Servant leaders exemplify a conception of leadership not concerned with power, but with empowerment,” he said. “Empowerment is concentrated within the group, rather than within the individual. It is incompatible with inequality and serves as a catalyst for change.”