Best & Brightest: Student Turned Legal Guardian Overcomes Obstacles

Rowana Johnson was just beginning to come into her own at San Diego State University when tragedy struck and the then-19-year-old began raising her younger siblings.

At San Diego, Johnson had not been completely satisfied with her college experience, but she enrolled in a Women’s Studies course and found the class to be engaging and compelling. She decided that she would dedicate her life to helping women and children have a better life.

In the midst of an exciting time as a young adult, her mother’s health started a downward spiral and in May 2006, her mother died of heart failure.

She feared for the well-being of her two teen-aged siblings, Christina and Clifton, and was particularly concerned that her brother might end up in foster care. The Long Beach native moved back home and transferred to California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) to assume the role of sole-provider of her siblings, who were only a few years younger than her.

Because of her responsibilities as a full-time student and sole provider of her siblings, she had little time for extracurricular activities on campus. However, she did manage to make the Dean’s List several times. And while she participated in recent commencement exercises, she will not complete all of her graduation requirements until later this year.

“I put a lot on my plate,” says Johnson, who was forced to go on welfare as she worked to make ends meet. Citing her faith as the source of her sustenance during the difficult time, Johnson made time for church— women’s fellowship, prayer sessions and Bible study.

Johnson had some help; two of her former high school teachers gave her money for groceries and other necessities. She enrolled her brother, whose safety she feared for because he had become increasingly rebelliousness, in evening classes to keep him productive.

At CSULB, Johnson decided to become a women’s studies and sociology double major. Johnson chose to tack on sociology because she says women’s studies and sociology go hand-in-hand.

Her determination to obtain a college education even in the midst of her personal struggles was instilled in her by her mother, she says.

“When we were young, we couldn’t miss a day of school — even if we were sick,” Johnson says, adding that many of the young adults in her community lack high school diplomas or the equivalent of it.

“‘You have to have education in this world,’” Johnson recalls her mother telling her.

Though her siblings were often difficult to deal with and rebellious, Johnson says, they taught her to be more outspoken and assertive. She also says her siblings were self-assured and when they wanted something, “they’d just go out and get it.”

Raising them made her identify more with single mothers — their feelings of being alone and overwhelmed with responsibilities. “That stuff about being a single mother is true,” Johnson says.

Johnson says she’s not sure what profession she wants to pursue, but she’s interested in counseling and social work — particularly for women who abuse drugs and alcohol.

Soon, Johnson will enroll in a graduate program while her sister anticipates attending historically Black Clark Atlanta University in the fall. In May, her sister graduated from Long Beach City College. Her brother, who graduated from high school in June, hopes to follow in his sister’s footsteps and attend City College as well.

Johnson urges any young person going through difficult times to persevere.

“It may look like it’s getting worse, but it’s getting better,” Johnson says. She adds, “Whatever you believe in, hold on to it strongly because what you believe in and what you say dictates your future.”

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