Morris C. Johnson Jr.
age 29, Doctoral Candidate,
See, the funny thing is, when I was in high school, whenever the teacher asked who is going to college, I never raised my hand. I wanted to be the Marine, you know, "The few and the proud." I'm not sure what changed my mind. I lived in Waterproof, La. Twenty-six people graduated with me in my class. There were no advanced math courses. When I got to college, it was a big culture shock. I went to Southern University in Louisiana-the largest historically black college in the country.
Morris C. Johnson Jr., age 29, Doctoral Candidate, Forest Resources. Photo by Mary Levin.
My parents did not go to university. On mom's side I am the only child who ever graduated with a bachelor's and other degrees. I tell my wife all the time that I'm kind of surprised that I'm even in college. I was raised by my great-grandfather and grandmother. I don't even remember what my father looks like. My mother never had a real job. My great-grandfather never went to high school. My uncle and aunt know what a master's degree is, but not my grandma. They know I've been in school for a long time, they don't understand what a Ph.D. is.
I didn't want to take out loans, because the most stuff I'm interested in is not worth the investment. How did I get in forestry? The reason is for the money! Nobody believes me, but that's how it was. They started something new and they needed to get students in. Never in a million years had I thought I would go into forestry! See, back in Louisiana you don't go to the woods, especially a fella with a nice tan like me.
If you major in the urban forestry program, you're required to do two internships. By the time I was enrolled, there were no good ones left, except a traditional forestry internship in Prospect, Ore. I took a Greyhound bus there, and I got "married" to the U.S. Forest Service for two years. Then I got bored and decided to go back to school.
I considered UW, and my mentor, Chad Oliver, whom I've known from working in southern Oregon, told me I should come to Seattle. Oliver, a UW forestry professor at the time, gave me a research assistantship and got me in, even though I didn't do very well on the GRE. I came here in 2000, the same year I was married.
I found out about the Gates scholarship one week before the deadline. Chad told me, "You should apply for it." In many ways it is because of Chad that I got this scholarship. The first thing you have to realize is the distinction between the adviser and a mentor. Chad would be mentor and a second father. He would always tell me, if you have trouble, let me know. He'd give me his number, his address, he'd tell you the way things are. He wouldn't be sugarcoating things.
Then I received a letter, which simply said "Congratulations! You have been selected as a recipient." To this day I'm still shocked. I'm still suffering from an impostor syndrome. I don't know what I did to get it. Now I look back and I realize that I did some preparation. I thought there is no way I can go to get a Ph.D. My plan was once I got my master's degree, I am outta here, but when the Gates came along, everything changed. If it wasn't for the Gates scholarship, there wasn't a Ph.D. for me. I carry around a card with me, which I will give to Bill Gates someday. It reads, "If it wasn't for you, I'd never be in school."