There’s nothing quite like a mountain cliff and a bungee cord to get a person thinking about life and fear.
Twenty years old and already seasoned by hardship, Jasmine Johnson stood on a ledge on the Bridge to Nowhere in California’s San Gabriel mountains, fairly determined not to jump, until she started thinking.
“I started thinking about life,” she said, “And how I’ve been afraid to do anything and how it’s been, ‘Oh, I’m too broke to do that. I don’t have any money to do this. I don't have time to do this.’”
She had worked her way through high school to have money to support herself and her family through years of poverty, including several months of homelessness and more than a few nights without lights to read by or heat in the winter.
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Poverty and academic strength earned her a chance at a free education at the University of South Carolina. And she has worked her way through college – the first of her parents or siblings to make it this far – while foregoing many of the typical “fun” college experiences.
“I’m so afraid to not work, to not have money in my bank account, to be poor again,” Johnson said. “I was so afraid to be poor again.”
In July, she stood on that ledge, in the company of other first-generation college students experiencing the world and, really, fun, for the first time in their adult lives.
“I was standing on that ledge and I said to myself, ‘If you jump today, you will jump into your new life. You will jump into a new person.’”
‘She deserved so much more’
Jasmine Johnson is living the dream her mother was too afraid to dream for herself, much less for her daughter.
For most of Johnson’s life, her family could barely afford a mortgage – forget tumbling classes or trips around the country.
“I had so much that I wanted for her life,” said Johnson’s mother, Cathy Phillips. “But because of the crazy predicaments my life was in, I just knew her life would never get there.”
Phillips says Johnson saved her life, coming into the world at a time when Phillips was “just so angry with God I just could not hear him.”
During Johnson’s childhood, the family moved several times between Charlotte and Florence before settling in Florence when Johnson was in fifth grade. It was around that time that Phillips, a nurse technician, and her husband, Derrick, a chef, began to face real financial hardship. And for the first time, the family really felt poor, Phillips said.
Phillips takes a lot of the blame for the situations her family faced – mismanaged personal and financial priorities, the moves from home to home, for a while having no home. Landing in an older, uninsulated wooden house in Florence, the house her husband’s mother grew up in, where a former pantry became their daughter’s bedroom.
But that little house, with none of the frills of Johnson’s friends’ homes, was still the place her high school companions would want to spend time. Why?
“It was literally the love of my parents that made everybody want to be there,” Johnson said. “I felt blessed because even though we don’t have much, we don’t struggle at home. My dad never walked out. My mom never quit. We were always strong as a family unit. It makes all the difference in the world.”
Phillips regrets what she didn’t give her daughter and marvels at the woman Johnson has become in spite of the family’s struggles.
“She deserved so much more than I gave her,” Phillips said. “She was God-sent to me and she was God-kept while I had her, because he knew I could not do it. ... I don’t take the credit for Jasmine; I give it to God.”
In the years of poverty and months of homelessness, it was Johnson who would lift up her family, Phillips said.
And Johnson turned to her studies. She made As and honor rolls – no excuses.
“It takes courage. It takes strength,” she said. “But you have the potential to do it. You have the potential to be great.”
And she made her way where no one else in her family had.
‘She gets it’
College was always an option, yet never an option, Johnson thought. She knew she was smart enough, knew she had the grades. But she didn’t have the money.
Then she discovered that financial aid could cover her education. And when she and her mother knew she was officially on her way to USC, they both cried.
In many ways, Johnson was prepared for college – for studying, for work. But she wasn’t prepared to deal with the separation from her family, who still struggled at home.
“I was stressed out. I was overwhelmed,” Johnson said. “My family was struggling back home, and here I am eating three meals a day, coming home to cable, Internet, lights, water, all this stuff, and my family’s not. So I was going to quit.”
She considered moving home to Florence to work and transferring to Francis Marion University. But her Teaching Fellows mentor at USC, Kim Smoak, helped change her mind.
“If she went home, I think her own family, especially her mother, would have regretted making her feel like she had to come home instead of taking advantage of this college opportunity,” Smoak said. “She gets it. She gets that education has afforded her opportunities she wouldn’t have had otherwise, and she has blossomed into this young woman who takes nothing for granted.”
Now a junior at USC, Johnson is studying to become a middle school science and social studies teacher.
She volunteers teaching seventh graders in a humanities lab at Fulmer Middle School, where the students gravitate toward her, said Sabrina Williams, a Fulmer humanities and social studies teacher who works with Johnson.
“She is able to communicate a sense of caring, and she is able to talk to them and relate to them in a way that shows that she understands them,” Williams said. “And when the students feel that from a teacher, they respond to that teacher.”
Johnson understands children, and she doesn’t want to see any of them left behind because of their circumstances.
“I know those struggles,” Johnson said. “And I know wholeheartedly what you’ve been through. But you don’t have to give up, and you don’t have to let your circumstances dictate where you can go.
“You can do something great if you allow yourself to.”
‘I’m living without these fears’
Though two years in college had given her opportunities she never would have had elsewhere, Johnson was still missing out, spending most of her free time to working multiple jobs to support herself.
What was fun? Who knew? She didn’t have time for that.
It would take a five-week roadtrip across the country this past summer to teach her “fun” and much more.
Johnson was one of the first to apply for the “First-Gen Roadtrip,” sponsored by the College Board, the private company that manages the SAT college-admission test.
Footage from the roadtrip will air on PBS in a single episode this spring.
Johnson and three other first-generation college students traveled to 12 cities and were exposed to adventures such as skydiving, whitewater rafting, bungee jumping and interviewing successful and inspiring leaders such as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and musical artist John Legend.
“We did things that first-generation students don’t really think about because we’re so busy trying to survive,” Johnson said.
Johnson was starstruck by Duncan. She was inspired by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. She fell in love with whitewater rafting.
She left her troubles in the sky, she said, when she jumped from a plane and her fears behind her when she stepped off that ledge on the Bridge to Nowhere.
“I feel like everybody in this world is afraid of something,” she said. “And until we jump and conquer those fears, it’s just going to control our lives.
“And now I’m living without these fears, and I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m enjoying college. And it took me all of three years, but I’m doing it now, and I’m doing it right.”