Johnnie Johnson ’97: Preparing future generations

Johnnie Johnson ’97’s work is steeped in understanding what makes students apply to colleges. As the vice president of admissions at Transylvania University, he recalls his own decision to attend a small, private liberal arts college in Iowa instead of the larger institutions he first considered.

Johnnie Johnson ’97
Johnnie Johnson ’97

“I got this random brochure that talked about One Course At A Time,” Johnson says, “and dug into it a bit more. I remember taking my visit to Cornell in April of my senior year, so it was late.” 

By the time his visit was over, he knew Cornell was it.  

“In my business now, I try to make that happen for a lot of different families,” he says. “It’s not just about the academics or the programs, sometimes it’s just a feeling or a moment.” 

Johnson arrived on campus that fall with his parents (his mother would later go on to college herself, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and his dad was in the military). His dad told Olin Hall R.A. Marcus Montgomery ’95, “Take care of my son.” Johnson soon found himself hanging out in Montgomery’s room all the time, taking naps on the Orange Carpet, and playing endless card games. 

After Olin, Johnson lived in the 8th Avenue Apartments by the train tracks with Claude Howard ’97 for three years and didn’t find the noise of the trains annoying at all. He continues to meet up with Howard, Montgomery, Jason Edwards ’95, and James Mourning ’99 once a year. 

In addition to his academics (economics and business and sociology double major), his work experiences as a tour guide and on the admissions call team, and his involvement in shaping the Black Awareness Cultural Organization (BACO) helped prepare him for his future in higher ed. 

When Johnson and his friends were students on the Hilltop, they reckoned with issues of race but forged ahead in developing organizations on campus that would support future generations of marginalized students. When Johnson moved south for work, he faced a similar challenge, his greatest challenge to date. The difference was now he was part of the administration, again working toward developing a support system for students of color and trying to make sure their voices were heard.

“Ten years ago, 5% of Transylvania’s students were students of color and now we’re at 18%,” he says. “Part of that is just having a presence here on campus but also challenging the administration to put some money into scholarships and programs and into different partnerships. A white student from Lexington and a Black student from Lexington will have different experiences, and that needs to be recognized.” 

Before Transylvania he worked at Georgetown College and before that, he worked in Cornell’s admission office. He’s turned down opportunities at larger institutions for a reason. He passionately believes in small, private liberal arts colleges. 

“Cornell was and is one of the leaders in higher ed. When I first got there, Kevin Crockett was dean of admissions. Kevin’s boss was Peter Bryant. Peter and Kevin started Noel-Levitz [a higher-ed agency]. I learned from them. Brian Taylor ’93, Todd White ’91, and Wes Butterfield ’91 all worked there with me, and we all went on to higher ed.

“When you’re a product of a school like Cornell,” he says, “you believe in what that institution and schools like it can do. My proudest moments are watching students I’ve recruited walk across that stage at graduation.”