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Veteran earning degree online to provide a better future for his family

When Jimmy Johnson, 52, of Benton, was called in for a fifth and final interview for a vice president position a few years ago, he was certain that his life was about to change. 

“I just knew that my experience would finally pay off and move me out of the horizontal status that I seemed to be stuck in,” Johnson said. “I can’t tell you how excited I was when they requested this last interview. I just knew that my life was going to change.”

The interviewer asked Johnson one simple question. Do you have any college? He said no.

“They had explained to me that they wanted me, but their policy was that individuals for these positions must have a college education,” Johnson said. “They were going to waive their requirement for an actual degree for me, but because I had no college, they could not waive that. You just don’t understand the depression that set in for me. I knew at that point that I would always be in a horizontal status unless I do something about it. This is when I decided to obtain a college degree.”

Johnson, a veteran and father of six, always wanted to go to college, but circumstances in his life did not allow this after high school. At 18, married and with his first child, Johnson dropped out of high school to support his growing family. He spent a few years working as a cook at Shoney’s.

When his first wife became pregnant with his second child and Johnson without health insurance, he joined the U.S. Army in 1987 and completed the tactical satellite/microwave repairer course. He served in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. He credits the U.S. Army for providing him with the skills to get the professional job he needed.

“I owe the Army everything I have today. They gave me the experience that I needed to be in the profession that I am today,” he said.

After 10 years in the Army, Johnson worked a variety of positions with 30 years experience in the telecommunications industry. He has worked as a transport engineer at Alltel Wireless, as a realtor and consultant, and owned his own business as well. Johnson currently works as a professional vendor manager at AT&T in Little Rock.

After being unable to advance further in his career without a college degree, Johnson joined UA Little Rock in 2016 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in applied science with minors in management and professional communications.

“At my age, I could have taken college anywhere, but I didn’t want that,” Johnson said. “I wanted a campus feel, even though my schedule does not accommodate that. UA Little Rock gave me that campus feel. When I graduate, I won’t feel like I went to an online school. I have made a point to meet every professor that I have had classes with face to face, even though they are online. Having access to the programs that UA Little Rock has to offer has benefitted me by allowing me to be a professional and a father. The services that UA Little Rock offers gives me the flexibility to work on my studies on a schedule that fits my lifestyle.”

He credits his wife Melissa and Kathy Oliverio, director of military student success at UA Little Rock, for encouraging him to complete his degree.

“Kathy Oliverio is the one who told me I could do it,” Johnson said. “I was a nervous wreck. She told me, ‘Jimmy, you can do this.’ She is the one who really motivated me to just go for it. I keep in touch with her all the time. My goal is to graduate with a 4.0. She said, ‘for someone who is nervous, you have high goals.’ I said, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this right.’ My wife, Melissa, is very supportive. She’s another one who told me, ‘Jimmy, go get your education.’”

His schedule as a student remains hectic. Johnson has five adult daughters who no longer live at home. He also has a “late in life blessing” in the form of his 5-year-old son, Blake. After spending all day at work, Johnson is dedicated to spending as much time as possible with his son.

“My son is my pride and joy to me,” he said. “From after work until he goes to bed, that time is his. Friday and Saturday are his. I start my schoolwork at 9 p.m. on Sunday and do school work until almost 2 a.m. every morning from Sunday through Thursday. This is Blake’s first year in kindergarten, and he didn’t like it as much. Hey, Daddy goes to school, too. It’s brought him around to saying that school is not so bad because Daddy’s doing it.”

Once he graduates in 2019, Johnson hopes to move into management and eventually land the coveted vice president position.

“With the diploma from this university and the experience that I have, I am hoping that for once in my life – instead of opportunity always passing me by – I will have a chance to pass up opportunities.”

Johnson hopes that the lesson people take away from his story is to see the value of getting an education and to go for it.

“I just wish that everyone that reads this really considers getting their education,” he said. “Without it, there is a good chance you will never achieve the goals that you are working for. Education is never ending. I have required training at AT&T. AT&T has a program called Workforce 2020 to make sure that their employees are keeping up with all the new changes in technology and education. Technology changes and management styles change. If you don’t keep up, you’ll be left behind.”

In the upper right photo, online UA Little Rock student Jimmy Johnson does most of his school work by night so he can spend time with his 5-year-old son Blake. Photo by Ben Krain.