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Standing Tall

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Amy Johnson fights through cancer to earn a college degree

By Chris Sardelli

The importance of perseverance rang true for all 74 University of South Carolina Lancaster students who participated in graduation ceremonies Saturday, April 28.

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But it was especially true for Amy Johnson, who donned her cap and gown and listened to guest speaker Dr. Leah Moody.

For Johnson, 54, perseverance is her only option, as she’s battled cancer off and on for the last several years. 

She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. A year later, she was in remission and enrolled at USCL to earn a  bachelor in liberal studies degree, though doctors discovered cancer in her liver and lungs in May 2011. 

Throughout coursework, Johnson often juggled the demands of final exams, term papers and class projects with her weekly chemotherapy treatments, though she never complained about the experience. 

“I feel great about graduating because with me going through chemo every week it was hard, but school was something I wanted to try for,” Johnson said. “School is quality time for me. At my age, you might not want to go back to school, but I enjoy it and love it.”

She hopes her degree, with an emphasis on criminal justice, will help her achieve her next life goal – to become involved in law enforcement and help close cold cases. 

“I want to work on them and bring them into the light,” she said. 

Johnson credits her perseverance to support she received from family, classmates and professors. 

“I’m still doing good. I’m still kicking,” she said

Her husband, Don Johnson, who attended the ceremony along with several friends and family, smiled as he considered his wife’s new degree. 

“After all the things she’s done been through, this is just great,” Don Johnson said. 

Also impressed was social psychology professor Tracey Craig, who marveled at Johnson’s dedication, often completing assignments from a hospital bed. 

“She would call me from the hospital to ask when things were due. I’d tell her you can hand it in later and she would say no,” Craig said. “If every student was as dedicated as her, we’d have a 100 percent graduation rate.”

With graduation day upon her, Johnson had some advice of her own about persevering. 

“I’ve always taught my children if you want something, go for it. Don’t ever give up. You can do anything you put your mind to.” Amy Johnson said. “Put God first and keep on moving.”

Moody: ‘Dream Big’

USCL commencement speaker Dr. Leah Moody told Johnson and her fellow graduates the path upward requires self-improvement, community involvement and vision.

Moody, a member of the USCL Board of Trustees from the 16th Judicial Circuit as well as a civil litigator and criminal defense lawyer, thanked the graduating class for their achievements at USCL, their future contributions to the state and their commitment to “the human condition.”

Borrowing a line from the movie “Coach Carter,” the true story of a coach who benched his star high school basketball team until they turned their academics around, Moody told the students their achievements made them “powerful.”

“By your presence here today and the accomplishments you’ve made up to this point, you are powerful beyond measure,” Moody said. 

She offered several tips to help guide students as they finished degrees or pursued careers. 

First, she urged the importance of self-improvement, by elevating skills and achieving goals. 

“Go that extra mile when it’s easier to stop,” she said. 

Making a difference in the community by being a leader is also crucial, Moody said. 

“Each of you have influence, but it’s up to you how you use it,” she said. 

Her final point was to make sure the students always persevere and “dream big.”

“Dream big, seek adventures and take note of all your experiences,” Moody said. “As T.S. Eliot said, only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

Humbling experience

Camera flashes, high fives, hugs and tears of joy filled the lobby outside the Bundy Auditorium minutes after the graduation ceremony.  

Joining in the celebration, was Angie Bragg, 32, who not only received her associate degree in nursing, but was presented with the Francine Manion Award. The award was extra-special for Bragg, as she was nominated by her peers in the nursing program. 

“This is all so humbling. It’s just wonderful,” Bragg said. 

Holding her 4-year-old son, Elijah, in her arms, Bragg said her family was extremely excited to see her receive her degree. 

“I’m the first generation in my family to graduate from high school and go to college, so they are ecstatic,” she said. 

Nearby, well-wishers congratulated married couple Christopher and Sabrina Culp, both 38, for each receiving a bachelor in liberal studies degree. 

The couple, who have been married for 16 years, both have jobs related to law enforcement and are hoping to use their degrees to advance in their careers. 

“I’m looking forward to getting a job that utilizes my knowledge and skills,” Sabrina Culp said. 

“This feels great,” Christopher Culp said. “It’s been a long time coming.”

This year’s graduating class included 151 students who earned associate degrees for the Summer 2011, Fall 2011 and Springs 2012 semesters. There were also several bachelor’s degrees awarded through USC Columbia, though all students fulfilled degree requirements on the Lancaster campus. This included 37 students who earned various bachelor of arts degrees, as well as 13 students who earned a bachelor of science in nursing. 

All graduating students were invited to the ceremony, though only 74 students participated. 

 

Contact reporter Chris Sardelli at (803) 416-8416