Someone Like You: Exploring the Stigma Faced by Johnston Students


After spending several weeks following Sophomore Bria Kates and Clarissa “Chevvy” Jenkins’ journey through the sophomore contracting process in the Johnston Center for Integrated Studies, I was exposed to the rigorous self-driven nature a Johnston student must have in order to gain the full benefit the center can provide. But it also became increasingly clear the true scope of the stigma others outside the center hold on such a path, and the impact it has on those who tread it.


Jenkins mentions in her contract narrative the pressure placed on her by her parents to get a “real degree,” which she describes as “basically not art history or philosophy,” but if certain traditional and well established majors already hold less significance to parents, how then would they react to their child being the architect of her own major?


“Growing up in Olympia [Washington], I lived twenty minutes away from [Evergreen State College], and their whole system is like Johnston.” Jenkins said. “Every student there does it … My parents came from a military, medical background. They didn’t really appreciate it.”


This aversion to the type of education Evergreen and the Johnston Center provides often arises from the idea that a self-designed major is not a credible benefit to professionals.


“My dad said ‘You can go to any school you want, just don’t go to Evergreen. I just don’t see you getting a good education there. I don’t see you graduating, going out into the field, and being respected,’” Jenkins said. “So when I came here and discovered the Johnston Center, there was this huge pushback from my parents … [they] were very worried that if I went Johnston, I would be abandoning the resources I’d built up.”


Persuading her parents of her pathway’s validity was an uphill battle. Jenkins explained each facet of the Johnston education process and why it was the best option for a student like her, who was seeking to combine a spectrum of disciplines.


“I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that they don’t have a lot of information [about its structure]” Jenkins said. “Of course there was the backlash of the grading system. They said ‘that seems so unprofessional. I can never see an employer wanting to read sixteen-plus evaluations.’”


This is a point of contention Kates also encountered. However, Director of the Johnston Center and Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities Julie Townsend argues that these evaluations are a unique asset to students of the center.


“[Johnston students] tend to have really deep relationships with faculty members, so the letters of recommendation come out very strong … When I as an advisor am writing a letter of rec for a Johnston student, I don’t just have my own experience with that student, but I also have read all of the evals from other faculty members.”


For Jenkins, the decision to enter the Johnston Center in spite of her parents’ apprehensions was the deciding factor in convincing them.


“[I told them] I am doing this because I want to make them proud and because I think this is going to make me more successful than I would be as a CAS [College of Arts and Sciences] student,” said Jenkins. “The second I said that they told me ‘if that’s what you really believe then ok.’”


Beyond these evaluations, parents like Kates’ often question the validity of a student’s ability to construct his or her own curriculum, as opposed to the standard prerequisites CAS students must fulfill.


“My parents have been really supportive,” Kates said. “They love this idea of what I’m trying to do, and they know where my end goal is … I think my dad though … we just talked about this on the phone a few days ago. He said ‘I don’t understand it. I don’t understand how you don’t have prerequisites. I don’t understand how you don’t have to take math and science and a language.’”


Kates’ conflict with her father is not uncommon, but the Johnston Center has its own prerequisites defined in the breadth of a Johnston student’s curriculum.


“Breadth means that Johnston students should be addressing a liberal arts education,”  Townsend explained. “Which should include the creative process, the humanities, the social sciences, the natural sciences, and quantitative reasoning, but we don’t have specific courses that students have to take in order to fulfill those things. For example, rather than having to take a prescribed math class we would be fine if a student wanted to argue that a stats class, or a computer science class, or a GIS class is their quantitative reasoning.”


After Kates graduates from the center, her mother questions where her daughter will go next.


“My mom is more concerned about how this is going to be legitimate to a grad program,” Kates said. “I’ve told her there’s this girl who just graduated, and she was a Business major, but also emphasized in music appreciation [and] race and ethnic studies within music. Every time she went into an interview, she had all these extra things under her belt, and they were always so impressed by that.”


Professor Townsend responds with further evidence that the education a Johnstonite receives often result in a fulfilling career, and these examples are a form of support and community for current students of the center.


“Johnston students tend to find careers that really matter to them,” Townsend said. “We have a series every year called the Kathryn Green Speaker Series where we bring four to five alums who are at various stages in their career paths, and talk specifically to Johnston students about what they learned while they were at Johnston translated into whatever career path or graduate school path they took … What we try to do is make sure that in community, we’re providing Johnston students with a variety of models of how they could think about making their education a benefit.”


Jenkins and Kates have parents who are ultimately concerned about the success of their child, but what both students have learned is that they must be willing to commit to their pathways despite the resistance.


“Luckily I have amazing, supportive parents, but I also can’t wait until I prove them wrong and get into an amazing grad program,” Kates said.


In her closing remarks, Townsend gave a few words of advice to Jonhstonites who come to question, be it from outside criticism or internal insecurity, their decision to embark on their alternative education path.


“I always say to students, you need to not be shy or insecure about the fact that you chose a nontraditional path,” Townsend said. “You need to make sure you present it in a way that is compelling and interesting. It’s hard to find someone else like you.”