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A Winding Path to Whitman

For Kanesha Johnson ’23, earning her degree was a professional goal & personal mission

By Pam Moore

Photography by Sam Montes ’23

Kanesha Johnson standing outside.

For Kanesha Johnson ’23, Whitman College initially felt completely out of reach. After spending her teenage years in foster care, dropping out of college and taking community college classes while juggling multiple jobs and a family, she knew she needed her bachelor’s degree but saw herself enrolling in an online program. 

The 34-year-old Sociology major recalls thinking, “Whitman was ‘too fancy’ for someone like me.” But as Johnson prepares to don a blue cap and gown, she’s thankful to have learned about the social systems that have impacted her life and for the mentors who helped convince her that Whitman was, in fact, the right place for her. 

After bouncing between Indiana and Minnesota for much of her childhood, Johnson’s family landed in Washington state—and at age 12, she entered the foster care system. Her mom, who passed away in 2022, worked hard to reunite the family, to no avail. It would be years until Johnson, who stayed with her foster parents through high school graduation in 2007, understood the social structures that were working against her mom.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation granted Johnson a full scholarship to Western Washington University, where she studied theater and dance. Having danced since the age of 13, her goal at the time was to become a professional dancer.

While the opportunity was amazing, the timing wasn’t. “I wasn’t ready for a four-year college at that time in my life,” says Johnson. She dropped out and took community college courses while working in Bellingham, where she met her husband and step-daughter. 

Always a Helper

Eventually, the young couple moved to Walla Walla and had a son in 2012. In her new hometown, Johnson found fulfilling work as a caregiver at Wheatland Village, a senior living facility. While she loved her caregiving role, it wasn’t a sustainable way to support her family. 

“I just felt like I could do better,” says Johnson. With a goal of earning her bachelor’s degree by age 35, she enrolled in Walla Walla Community College’s Human and Social Services program. 

“Even as a child, I wanted to be in a helping role. I used to work with kids at summer camps and church.”

Earning a Degree Was a Professional Goal—and a Personal Mission 

“My parents did the best they could with what they had but I wanted to break the cycle,” Johnson says.

On top of her position at Wheatland, she held two other jobs—all while raising two kids and taking classes. For over a year, she balanced three jobs until she landed a full-time position as a rapid rehousing coordinator with Blue Mountain Action Council (BMAC) and quit her other jobs at the start of 2020.

Shortly after starting at BMAC, Johnson told her supervisor and mentor, Elizabeth Guerra, she was exploring an online program to complete her bachelor’s degree. In response, Guerra suggested she look into Whitman. Johnson recalls replying, “I could never get in, and I can’t afford it.” 

This was the same story she’d been telling herself for years. While working at Wheatland, another mentor had floated the idea, which Johnson promptly rejected. She vividly remembers the conversation—and picturing herself attending Whitman, like it was a dream. Still, she thought, “I wasn’t made for that.”

Unconvinced, Guerra ignored Johnson’s misgivings and introduced her to Professor of Sociology Michelle Janning. That conversation was a life-changing catalyst. With Janning’s encouragement, Johnson applied, barely making the deadline.

Belonging at Whitman 

Carrying a full courseload while managing motherhood and full-time work has been challenging. Only once she’s clocked out of her job and tucked her children into bed does Johnson start her homework. She’s also had to reckon with the feeling of not belonging on a campus full of students whose backgrounds are largely unlike her own.

Johnson recalls Associate Professor of Sociology Alvaro Santana-Acuña, reminding her, “You’re feeling impostor syndrome. You’re here for a reason.”

Being different has advantages, too, however. Johnson says her experiences allow her to contextualize her academic learning in a way that no book or lecture ever could. Meanwhile, her coursework puts the challenges she’s navigated and the issues facing her BMAC clients into sharper focus. 

Although she won’t be present to see Johnson accept her diploma, her mother remains an inspiration. “From where I stood, my mother was the strongest and bravest person in my life. I am my mother’s child, and I know a lot of my strength and ability to push through comes from her. This diploma is not only for me but for her as well.”

While she’s not sure what her future holds, Johnson knows her success at Whitman is the foundation she needs to change her family’s future. “I want my kids to have what they need,” says Johnson. And that includes a mom with a college degree to show what’s possible. 

Published on Jun 21, 2023
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