Guest speaker Gralon A. Johnson, University Innovation Alliance Fellow and former Golden Lion, showed University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff students Thursday during his speech at the Founders and Honors Awards Convocation that they don’t have to be perfect to be successful.


UAPB’s annual Founders and Honors Awards Convocation, held in the H.O. Clemmons Arena inside of the Kenneth L. Johnson, Sr. HPER Complex, is a ceremony recognizing the educational achievements of former and current students and is designed to remind students of the connection between the past and future, according to the university.


However, Johnson encouraged young adults to not allow this connection to interfere with their paths to success.


As a UIA Fellow at Iowa State University, Johnson designs and implements comprehensive student success initiatives to support persistence and completion outcomes for low-income and first-generation students. These initiatives are used to support persistence and completion outcomes in these underrepresented student populations who may not recognize the tools they have to be successful.


Johnson, growing up in a rough area of St. Louis, Missouri, is no stranger to adversity himself. Being homeless most of his life, he reminisced about a time when he shared a one-bedroom hotel room with his mother and 12 siblings. Despite his struggles at home, he continued his education, oftentimes suppressing his love for books because of the stigma placed on education and young black males in his community at the time.


After spending numerous years of trying to maneuver through what he describes as “a broken education system,” Johnson was left with the feeling that he was less than a man.


“I believed I was nobody,” Johnson said when reflecting on his school days in the second most dangerous city, according to Forbes in 2017. “I thought I had no place in higher education.”


It was a trip to the Amtrak station that would force him to ultimately put his past behind him and alter his connection with the past and future for the better.


Teary-eyed, his mother sent her son on his way to UAPB in order to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in human development and family studies. Although he was sheltering the belief that he didn’t belong in a higher learning institution, the mission that UAPB’s founders had left behind would serve to prove him wrong and motivate him to reach goals he had never dreamed of.


“We come when thou call’st us to battle, dear mother,” Johnson said as he recited a line from the UAPB Alma Mater, which he admits still makes him emotional to hear.


It is this line that served as a constant reminder to Johnson that throughout the years he spent as a student, the university has provided him with more than he can give in return.


“UAPB didn’t just teach books,” Johnson said. “They teach life.”


Aside from the educational lessons, Johnson endured on a daily basis, UAPB was succeeding in teaching him how to piece together his life, which failed to improve whenever he returned home during breaks. During his undergraduate studies at the university, Johnson found a mentor that didn’t just put his abilities on display but taught him how to reveal his own. It was this mentor that fueled Johnson’s determination to receive his Ph.D. at the age of 27 from Kansas State University.


Johnson encouraged students to live by the words of the popular rap group Migos and “walk it like you talk it.”


Getting rid of the Imposter Syndrome, the persistent doubting of one’s accomplishments and fear of being exposed as a fraud, is Johnson’s first key to success.


“I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re gonna find me out,” Johnson recounted.


After hearing this quote from author Maya Angelou, he was led to believe that even though we have doubtful thoughts it does not take away from our abilities. As proven by Maya Angelou, herself.


Before ending his speech, Johnson left the audience with his final key to success: pick a path. He described that there is a “sitting” path and a “thinking” path.


“Success depends on which one,” Johnson added.


From a one-bedroom hotel room in St. Louis, Missouri, to an award-winning doctoral dissertation, Johnson wants people to understand that the dreams and visions of UAPB’s founders helped him realize his potential and build a new connection from his past to his new beginnings.


Johnson said that it is because UAPB not only cared for and housed him, but because they loved him that he learned to believe in himself and overcome his hardships. He said he wishes for students to do the same.