by Sara Woelfel

Dreaming of her future, communications major Chanel Johnson once envisioned using her gifts to become a famous talk show host, following in the footsteps of her idol, Oprah. Willing to openly share her personal testimony and speak intimately with people, she is often told she has a gift for connecting deeply with others.

Yet since starting an internship in January, Johnson’s perspective on her future has changed.

“I was thinking about me, me, me and what I wanted, and I was forgetting what I was called to do,” said Johnson, who now is committed to pursuing opportunities to help others, possibly by hosting a radio show that addresses community issues and being “a voice for those who cannot speak up for themselves.”

What kind of an internship caused such a reversal in perspective? Johnson works with Kwabena Antoine Nixon, a nationally known spoken word artist, writer, educator, and motivational speaker. Through sharing his powerful personal experiences, he co-created the “I Will Not Die Young” campaign targeting young, black males; wrote “Eye Write What Eye See,” a book of poetry depicting his life story which is being used in Milwaukee classrooms; speaks to groups of troubled boys about their choices and future; runs the weekly Poetry Unplugged series at Social Live in Milwaukee; and recently started Be Inspired Works, an organization to oversee all his efforts.

“He makes me want to be better, because he is my motivation,” said Johnson, who first met Nixon in 2008 when she recorded a session of Poetry Unplugged for a TV show she produced at Milwaukee Area Technical College. “He connects with everybody. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a speech where he hasn’t touched somebody or somebody hasn’t said he changed their life.”

Starting her internship working on marketing and communications efforts to promote Nixon’s work, Johnson’s position evolved as Nixon hired her as his personal assistant, a job she continues even now that her internship, made possible through Stritch’s Great Lakes Community Investment Career Ready Internship program, is finished. She handles booking appearances, correspondence, invoices and W-9s, spreadsheets, marketing strategy meetings, and ongoing surveys.

“I make sure he doesn’t have to do anything but speak,” Johnson said. “I know if I don’t handle stuff and make sure all the legwork is done, then he’s not able to perform his job and help people out here, so I play an important role just as well as he does.”

Seeing the essential role she can play in helping others, Johnson branched out earlier this summer to a second Great Lakes’ internship that evolved to a part-time outreach communications and marketing coordinator position at Urban Day School, a University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee charter middle school in Milwaukee. As an alumna of Urban Day, Johnson is passionate about increasing enrollment and rallying support for the school as it struggles.

“What I want is to bring the school back to how it was when I went there, because I feel like that school helped make me who I am,” Johnson said. “It was built on leadership, and you being proud of who you are.”

In both jobs, Johnson receives many accolades for her hard work, fresh insights, and unwavering commitment. Expecting to graduate in December 2015 from Stritch, Johnson said several people already approached her with potential job leads.

“A corporate marketing director asked to borrow my notes after I did a pitch using the motivational sequence theory,” said Johnson, noting she used lessons from her Stritch classes in creating the pitch and in so much of what she does at both her jobs. “He said he wants to introduce me to people who might have a place for me after graduation.”

Johnson’s biggest challenge is time. She often has to resist the urge to jump into more projects so she can keep her focus on her full-time courseload at Stritch and all those issues near to her heart.

“I wish I had a clone of myself, because I want to do so much stuff. There’s not even enough hours in a day for me to do it. And I want to help so many people but I’m already committed to so many things.”

But Johnson refuses to let anything get in the way of her following her passion.

“Anything you want in life, that you’re passionate about and you really want, you have to make sacrifices. In order for me to see a change, you have to put in the work for it. So, I’m sacrificing my own life to make sure somebody else has a life.”