High school workshop was a life-changer

From a small town in Alabama with a population of less than 2,000 to the suburban setting of Long Island, Dr. Tonjanita Johnson, the chief deputy to the president at Stony Brook University, took a long and winding road to success.

In her teens, encouraged by her mother who told her she had “a knack for communication,” Johnson decided to join her high school newspaper in Butler, Ala., where she got the opportunity to begin her journalism career. All of her life-altering opportunities that she encountered, she said, stemmed from the knowledge she gained during the Minority Journalism Workshop at the University of Alabama while she was in high school. It’s now called the Multicultural Journalist Program and it has focused on adding diversity to the field of journalism for the past twenty years.

The summer of 1987 was an unforgettable one for Johnson. Her high school journalism teacher encouraged her to go to get a solid foundation for a potential career as a journalist. Johnson was the star pupil in her journalism class, where she became editor in chief during her senior year. However even though she had experience with typewriters and reporting, the paper from her small town high school was about half the size of many other papers.

Despite the small size of her high school paper, Johnson realized the hard way that it had a large impact on her surrounding community, after being called in to the assistant principal’s office for a controversial editorial she had wrote. She realized “people actually listen to our paper.” Getting in trouble was not a punishment in the least bit, sitting there in the office was more of a reward for a job well done. She said it was her first empowering moment as a rising journalist.


Dr. Tonjanita Johnson / Photo by Julianna Joyner

Even though she knew her writing was strong, the thought of not meeting up to par was frightening. Despite her doubt she went during her senior year in high school to embark on a journey to the University of Alabama, where the workshop was held. It was there where Johnson first saw her work in actual newsprint.

It was a nerve-racking experience, as she described it. “There were kids from big cities like Birmingham there,” she said. “I was not very certain at all of how well my talents would compare to those students who had more established news papers at larger schools.”

To her surprise, Johnson not only met up to their standards, but exceeded them, resulting in a scholarship from The New York Times foundation which was given out to one outstanding journalist in the two week long program. “I didn’t even go there with any intention of being able to secure a scholarship of any kind,” she said. In turn, that was the deciding factor to continue studying at the University of Alabama, going against her original plans for Howard University in Washington.

There Johnson majored in English and journalism, which she said was sometimes conflicting. “My English teacher would say to fluff up my stories, while my journalism teacher would tell me to take away the fluff and just give me the facts,” she said.

Johnson said her journalism professor “forced” her to go to talk to at least three different newspaper editors about getting a job. She found a job with a print journalism company where she stayed for a year and a half, even though Johnson’s original career intention was broadcast journalism. With the newsroom being situated in an area known for being discriminatory and for their Ku Klux Klan attacks Johnson was the only African American sitting in the room. It was an eye opener for Johnson after growing up in a tight-knit and safe community. She transferred back to the University of Alabama to get a graduate degree in advertising and public relations, paving the way to her current place at Stony Brook University.

Donna Buehler, director of EAP labor management at Stony Brook, praised Johnson for the impact she’s had on the university. “She has vision, she is strategic, she is an excellent communicator,” Buehler said. “She is efficient and effective and she takes into consideration the big picture and is sensitive to the needs of others.”

Johnson had words of encouragement for aspiring journalists. “Take advantage to learn at every opportunity, including the technology, how to express yourself and to get your story across,” she said. “Everything I do today goes back to that workshop.”