Miche’l Johnson might have been released from prison this week, or she might have graduated from college.
Depending on her choices, she said, it could have gone either way.
Johnson grew up one of six children of a single parent in a heavy drug-trafficking area of Newburgh, N.Y. She was an honors student, but she ran with a rough crowd. She did not value education and did not graduate from high school, she said.
In 2001, while staying with her sister in Kansas, she earned her GED, then attended Tennessee State University, studying biochemistry for two semesters before dropping out.
In 2009, she was back in New York living with friends. She had been in rehab and was “coming out of a bad place,” she said. Two weeks after she moved to Falling Waters, W.Va., the house where she had lived in New York was raided by police and the friend she had lived with went to prison.
Just recently, her friend was released and met with her parole officer.
Meanwhile, Johnson, now 30, walked across the stage Saturday at the Hagerstown Community College Athletic, Recreation and Community Center to receive her diploma. With a 3.8 grade-point average, she has been accepted to Columbia University to continue her studies in biochemistry. She will work toward a career as a cardiologist.
“I knew who I was. I decided to align myself,” Johnson said. “I just didn’t give up. That’s it.”
HCC President Guy Altieri commended several students, including Johnson, during the college’s 65th commencement. He called her “a testament to the power of goal-setting and personal determination.”
The college awarded 599 degrees and certificates. More than 330 graduates participated in the ceremony.
Caesar Smith, 21, of Hagerstown, also received praise from Altieri. Smith is one of five siblings and the first in his family to pursue a college education. He lives with three of his four sisters, each of whom has children.
“I play a father figure to them,” Smith said.
While caring for his family, serving as a peer tutor and as vice president of the college’s student government association, and juggling an internship with the National Cancer Institute, Smith studied late at night when it was quiet and earned an associate degree in arts and sciences. He hopes to attend Johns Hopkins University and eventually become a general practitioner.
Smith said graduation from HCC was “a great stepping stone” toward his ultimate goal.
“I’ll take it for what it is,” he said.
Brandon Bishop, 22, of Middletown, Md., provided graduate remarks. The 4.0-grade-point-average student earned three degrees in 2 1/2 years — one in mathematics, one in computer science and another in information systems technology. He earned a full academic scholarship to continue his education at the University of Baltimore studying simulation and digital entertainment, and hopes to one day own his own development studio.
Bishop encouraged the graduates to always strive for growth and outlined five principles for doing so. One principle was rest, which Bishop said has become “a lost art” in modern society. He said he had learned and taken to heart in a psychology class that rest provides more energy and resolve to tackle everyday life.
He told fellow graduates to “wrestle with hard questions” and to “seek deeper answers.”
“I want to leave you all with a challenge,” he said. “Stay teachable and never stop growing.”
Crystal Wolford, 47, of Hagerstown, stood in the lobby celebrating with her family following the ceremony. A mother of four, she returned to college when her youngest graduated from high school. She credited her husband, Gregg Wolford, with helping her earn her degree in human services.
“He did the dishes and the laundry so I could do my schoolwork,” Wolford said.