McMicken College of Arts & SciencesUniversity of Cincinnati

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'Motivation, Hope and Somebody in Your Corner'

Undergraduate’s work with a professional mentor – thanks to the STEER program – helped him escape the streets, find inspiration, land an internship and follow his dream of starting an urban youth recreation and education center.

Date: 8/27/2012
By: Tom Robinette
Phone: (513) 556-8577
As someone who almost succumbed to the treacherous culture of the streets, Da’Shawn Johnson wants to ensure others don’t stray down that path.

Johnson, 21, grew up in Over-the-Rhine at a time when the neighborhood was still among the poorest in Cincinnati. There came a point when he had to choose between taking his chances on the streets and seeking the promise of better things through higher education. What’s more, he had people counting on him – three sisters who needed their big brother to give them hope.

Now a fourth-year organizational leadership major at the University of Cincinnati, Johnson knows he made the right choice. The path to success is laid out before him thanks in part to support from the Striving to Transform, Enrich, Empower and Reward (STEER) program.
Da’Shawn Johnson (middle row, sixth from left) mentored sixth- through eighth-graders as part of his Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School internship.



STEER matches mentors from the local professional community with second-year, African-American students at UC in the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences and Lindner College of Business, as well as those with majors in criminal justice. Mentors provide nurturing experiences to support and motivate mentees; help them achieve academic excellence; broaden their career exposure; and facilitate relevant on-the-job experience.

Aaron Alexander, a senior purchasing manager at Procter & Gamble, was one of Johnson’s STEER mentors. Alexander says he has watched Johnson learn how to set goals that are realistic yet stretch his capabilities and to view unforeseen changes in his plans as personal challenges instead of insurmountable roadblocks.

“Da’Shawn has a thirst for knowledge that continues to impress me,” Alexander says. “Other students can learn from his example that hard work and dedication pay off.”

Through STEER, Johnson landed an internship with the Children’s Defense Fund’s (CDF) Freedom School this summer. In July, Johnson attended a CDF conference and worked at a Freedom School program hosted at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center downtown. He mentored sixth- through eighth-graders, working to instill a passion for education in them and proving how someone just like them can escape the streets and follow his dreams.

“This was a different summer program from what I was used to growing up,” Johnson says. “When we first got there, none of the kids loved to read. All they wanted to do was play games. But eventually they all started learning how to read better and how to like reading.”

Johnson says his efforts got the attention of Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory, and he was even featured on a WLWT report. The experience has helped give him confidence that he can be a difference maker in other people’s lives. When he completes his studies, Johnson wants to gain some experience in the professional world, perhaps at a nonprofit organization, before eventually starting his own recreation and education center for inner city youth.

“Growing up in Over-the-Rhine was very hard,” Johnson says. “I thought if I can overcome that situation, I know the kids I’m working with can too because most of them came from the same background as me. All it takes is a little motivation, some hope and somebody to be in your corner. Most of these kids, they don’t have anyone in their corner.”

And maybe some of those children he’s helped will follow the path he made out of the streets and toward a brighter future.

“There’s no way I would have been able to succeed on this level or be able to help kids the way I’m able to if it wasn’t for A&S and STEER and programs like it,” Johnson says. “This school offers a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience.”

For information about STEER, contact Director of Student Retention Initiatives Carol Tonge Mack at carol.tongemack@uc.edu.

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