Engaged Learning

Pulling up on his own bootstraps

by Jan Gillis ('07)


SUMMARY: Never one to shy away from a challenge, senior Michael Johnson has worked his way through college with the goal of becoming an Army nurse. In this video interview, he talks about the importance of student scholarships.

from the Winter 2018 print issue of Madison (Also in the September 2017 digital issue)


Michael Johnson has never been afraid of the word. Despite being told many times that realizing his dreams would not be easy, he has remained undeterred.

The driving force for Johnson was a desire for a career in the field of medicine. High-school extracurricular activities helping children with cancer led him to set his sights on nursing. “When I asked families who made the most impact in their lives as they dealt with illness, they all responded ‘nurses.’”

While his ambition came into sharp focus, the financial means to achieve the goal proved elusive. Although his parents were unable to finance his college degree, Johnson was determined to follow his passion regardless. “I knew it would be difficult, but I knew I would do it. I just didn’t know how long it would take or how I was going to do it.” Johnson had always been interested in the military, so when JMU’s Army ROTC program recruited him, he decided that becoming an Army nurse would allow him to help other people and help him get where he wanted to go. “Recruiters told me it would be difficult, but I wouldn’t be the first to do it or the last,” he says.

In truth, the road Johnson had embarked upon would prove very demanding.

“I’ve always known that nursing was a difficult field, but JMU’s School of Nursing hit me in the face with it. It is very hard,” he says. “Fortunately, I’ve had support from nursing professors and ROTC instructors.”

'Basic training in the infantry pushed me harder than I ever imagined, but I came back with a newfound confidence and determination, like there was nothing that could hold me back.'

And speaking of ROTC, he says the rigor of military training has only enhanced his passion for nursing. “Basic training in the infantry pushed me harder than I ever imagined, but I came back with a newfound confidence and determination, like there was nothing that could hold me back.”

Johnson says the small scholarship he received during his freshman year gave him incentive. “The fact that someone has faith in me enough to give me money motivates me. I don’t want to let them down,” he says. Despite the demands of nursing and ROTC, Johnson has worked a number of jobs, both on and off campus to help pay for college. Some semesters he has worked three jobs. “It’s helping,” he says.

A huge assist of another sort has come from the supportive atmosphere in the nursing program. “Professors Laureen Donovan, Karen Jagiello, Christina Lam, Melissa Leisen, Marjorie Scheikl, Karen Weeks, Julie Strunk and many others have all taken the time to mold me in their own way,” he says. “I’m very appreciative.”

Image of Michael Johnson and other JMU nursing students
JMU’s nursing program prepares nurses to meet the demand for increased access to quality care.

With graduation on the near horizon, Johnson isn’t taking it easy. He took advantage of several opportunities during the summer to gain exposure to new facets of nursing. A training program for Army and ROTC nursing cadets at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital in Tennessee put Johnson to work in an emergency room. “I was the first person to see patients, which was different than my previous experience with already-admitted patients,” he says. “JMU Nursing really prepared me to do well in that environment.” Later, through JMU’s study abroad program in Tanzania, Johnson worked at two separate hospitals in the region, gaining clinical experience in community health and pediatric care. “International medicine is incredibly different than here in the states,” he says. “You learn to treat patients despite limited supplies.”

He’s garnering inspiration from his hard work for the vision of what he can achieve in the future. “After a certain amount of time, we are allowed to specialize in the Army in different fields of nursing,” he says. He’s keeping all his options open. “I hope to have the opportunity to advance my career militarily and as a nurse, and gain exposure to different nursing communities within the military. I’m also open to doing things considered atypical for a nurse—Army Rangers, Airborne School—I want to test myself,” he says.

His ambitions may be challenging, but for Johnson, the difficulty is outweighed by a simple desire: “I want to make an impact,” he says.

“Typically, when people learn that I’m studying to be a nurse, they respond by telling me, ‘That’s going to be a great job, there’s plenty of benefits, you can work anywhere, it’s very flexible,’” Johnson says. “That’s not why I’m doing it. A great nurse has to provide compassion and hope for someone. I enjoy helping people.”

Notwithstanding the trials faced or the trials to come, he remains determined. “I can make a difference. If you have a desire to help, you’ll find a way to do it.”

Without scholarship dollars, deserving students like Michael struggle financially and so does James Madison University. If you'd like to help others, give now.

Content courtesy of Madison magazine

Published: Monday, September 11, 2017

Last Updated: Monday, September 10, 2018

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