Doctoral student overcomes odds to earn degree
Told in middle school that her chances for success would be limited because of a speech impediment, Cynthia Johnson relied on faith and determination to complete her journey as a doctoral student at Baker University.
“This educational experience has been especially empowering for me,” said Johnson, principal at Grandview (Mo.) Middle School. “People may say I can’t do something, but I know I can make it, if God says I can.”
Johnson joined seven other Baker University students to receive their doctoral degrees in educational leadership during commencement ceremonies on May 23 at the Collins Center.
Identified as a special education student because of her stuttering, Johnson overcame long odds and doubters. Known affectionately as “Mama J” because of her caring nature and outgoing personality, Johnson now considers herself an educator, researcher, keynote speaker, author, motivator and hope restorer.
“I knew early on in my life that education was going to be an opportunity to have access to other things in life and be the great equalizer, regardless of your walk of life,” said Johnson, now comfortable speaking in front of thousands of people.
After she completed her dissertation in February, Johnson made a phone call to Ken Bell, the one teacher who believed in her at Warrensburg (Mo.) Middle School.
“Ken Bell transformed my life,” she said. “He encouraged me to become involved in speech, debate and forensics. I thought he was crazy at first because I stuttered, sat back in class and didn’t talk much . . . and I got nervous when I had to go to the chalkboard.”
Because of Bell’s belief in the young student, Johnson learned that a positive relationship between a teacher and student helped develop confidence. “He connected with me because of the relationship,” she said. “He had the ability to pull things out of me.”
Before Bell, the only people who believed in Johnson were her parents. Rather than send their daughter to a speech pathologist, the parents persuaded her to sing in a church choir to gain confidence in front of people.
“Now when I speak before a national convention, I incorporate music into my presentations and that is all because my mother taught me to sing at a young age to overcome my stuttering,” said Johnson, who has recorded six songs on a gospel CD.
The motivation from her middle school teacher and her work at Grandview inspired Johnson to focus her dissertation on how a rewarding relationship between an adult figure and students can increase student achievement.
“Many times there were days of tears and days of joy with the writing involved for the dissertation,” Johnson said.
When notified by her adviser, Dr. Susan Rogers, that she had passed her final dissertation oral defense, Johnson became emotional after realizing years of dedication had come to fruition. Her parents were at commencement to celebrate with her.
“There was nothing I could do but cry,” she said. “I told Dr. Rogers, ‘You made this happen. You gave me the strength and knowledge.’ It is a moment in my life that I will never forget.”