Public education in the U.S. is known to have a persistent, well-documented problem: there’s a fairly significant achievement gap between white students and students of color.
University of Houston-Clear Lake Distinguished Alumnus Preston Johnson Jr., grew up as a young African-American in a small town near Waco. It was difficult to envision a future where he was competing in college against students from bigger schools who had more advantages. Now retired from his position as regional president of Southeast Texas at Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Johnson reflected on how far he has come in life, and explained his secret to success remains deeply rooted in values his parents taught him.
“I always thought I was coming from behind, but my folks instilled what I call the ‘Three F’s’ in me, and it’s still relevant in terms of values for young people. The Three F’s are faith, family and friends,” he said.
“Faith is a broad category that is about not only believing in someone or something bigger than myself, but also believing in myself and what I am trying to accomplish.”
Your family, he continued, will always be there for you. “Cultivate them and get their help when you need it. And find the kind of friends who are not hangers-on, but people who are genuinely interested in you,” he said. “If you have a deficiency to work on, they will help you build yourself and be your voice of reason when you need it,” he said.
Creating a blueprint
Johnson grew up in a large family who didn’t have much money, but his parents were adamant that he and his siblings would be college educated. “My father would look at me and say, ‘You are going to be somebody!’ His meaning was, don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t going to make it,” he said.
From that simple lesson, he developed his own ‘blueprint’ in life, which began in an unlikely place. “I remember sitting in the hayfields in the summer when I was a kid,” he said. “I would think about what I wanted to do, and what success for me would look like. I came up with a plan, step by step.”
After working all during junior high and high school on a ranch, going to football practice, studying and going to school, he felt he was accomplishing something. “I was taught that I had control over what I did and if things didn’t work out, I couldn’t pin it on anyone else or say that I would have succeeded if it hadn’t been for this or that,” he said. “That just doesn’t play.”
When he went to college, Johnson said, he fulfilled the first part of his blueprint. “I knew out there in the hayfield that the first step was college, and when I was a kid, it sounded great,” he said. “But it was not easy. In my blueprint, I was going to graduate from college in three years. I didn’t have two nickels to rub together. But my family came up with the scholarships and grants.”
There were many times during his undergraduate college experience that he thought it was just too difficult to continue. “You have moments where you want to go home because you don’t think it’s possible,” he said. “There were many times when I was the only person of color in a classroom. To make matters more difficult, at that time I was the only black accounting student in the entire university. I certainly didn’t feel very smart or in a position to compete. You have to shut all that out. You can’t think about a color barrier, because there aren’t any barriers.”
He challenged himself to choose the person he thought was the best student in the class and surpass them academically. “It didn’t matter if they were white,” he said. “It only mattered that I thought they were winning and I wasn’t. You can’t think in terms of being the underdog because you’re black. You have to think that with hard work and patience, it will come.”
With the right support, he said, first-generation students can do as well as anyone else. “Even if you’re the first one in your family to go to college, you have to believe you will be successful,” he said. “You show the professors you are relevant and you will separate yourself from the others.”
Changing the blueprint
Although Johnson achieved a milestone when he graduated with his bachelor’s degree in accounting, the life plan he’d constructed for himself in the hayfield didn’t go exactly as anticipated. “After a few years of being an accountant, I realized this is not what I wanted to do for the next 35 years,” he said. “I was not having fun. I had to make a change to another field, and that was tough. At the time, I didn’t find a lot of people who were willing to let me in the door to try other things.”
He knew he had a talent with people and could build and maintain good relationships. “I changed my career to human resources, and I had to find people to give me support. I felt I had been accomplishing things, but I had to do something different,” he said. “Another part of my blueprint was getting an MBA. I came to UHCL in 1981 as part of that. I was continuing to write my life story. I owe a special debt to both Sam Houston State University and UHCL for what I have been able to accomplish.”
Even with a new career, Johnson still had doubts. “There were times when I was working in Fortune 500 companies and when things didn’t go right, I wanted to walk out. I was often the only person of color in boardrooms.”
However, keeping his parents’ lesson in mind, Johnson persisted with a different mindset. “Some people might be intimidated by being the only black person, but I never thought of that. I knew I was good and that nobody could do the job better.”
The Three P’s
By creating his own path, Johnson said he’s taken his parents’ lesson of the Three F’s a step further and found that people, purpose and passion also played critical roles in his success. “Those three are linked together,” he said. “No matter what you do, you’ll have to do it through the help of people. It’s key to find people who are interested in what you’re trying to accomplish. I had several mentors along the way. Finding a mentor relationship is a great way to get insight when you feel you’re stuck in a trap.”
Now, Johnson has his own lessons to pass on to a new generation of students.
“None of those problems can dictate whether or not you’ll be successful. With the right support, you will do well. Education is the key; it’s the differentiator. If you want to win, you have to be educated. Don’t let your family or yourself down. If you keep with the Three F’s and the Three P’s, you will succeed.”