Dean Smith’s family and the University established the fund, which assists undergraduate and graduate students in the School of Education and the School of Social Work. The fund honors Smith’s dedication to social justice, public education and advancing the civil rights movement, according to a press release from the School of Education.
“Winning it means a lot,” Johnston said. “Personally, coming from out of state and paying out-of-state tuition, I was really overwhelmed. I was starting to rethink if it was the best option.”
Meghan Walter, Johnston’s professor and the school counseling program coordinator, said she nominated Johnston for the scholarship because of her academic achievement and previous experience with advising.
“I remember Alexandria coming to us first at the beginning of the year in January for an on-campus interview when she applied to the program,” Walter said. “Her background stood out to me right away, she has a lot of experience in advising.”
Johnston has worked in rural Virginia schools in the school counseling office.
“The students at the high schools I worked at were largely low-income and lower represented students, and I encouraged them to eventually enroll and pursue higher education,” Johnston said.
Patrick Akos, an education professor, recognized Johnston’s commitment to helping students thrive.
“Her experience is mostly in helping low-resourced schools and students find their way to postsecondary education — but she is as committed to helping students learn, navigate emotional crisis and helping them reach their potential,” Akos said.
Johnston is pursuing a degree in school counseling while also interning at Cary High School.
“She has been doing very well academically in the program and has excelled in her internships,” Walter said. “The administration at Cary High has actually asked her to take on several duties, so they think very highly of her there.”
Though she said taking graduate courses in addition to interning has been difficult, Johnston recognized how rewarding both experiences have been.
“I think it’s mostly tough because I really wish I could put my energy into one,” Johnston said. “However, I really enjoy working at Cary High School and taking courses at UNC.”
Johnston hopes to return to a school in a smaller, rural setting when she finishes her degree.
“I think that at this stage in my life, I really want to use my experience to encourage students of my same race and background to pursue higher education but in a smaller setting,” Johnston said. “This scholarship means opportunity and that I’m on the right path.”