After taking a semester off because of a concussion, Mary Johnson ’21 is due to graduate in December. Besides spending time volunteering with the Center for Prison Education (CPE), majoring in religion with a data analysis minor, and engaging in spiritual life on campus, Johnson still finds time to dance and play Frisbee. The Argus Zoomed with Johnson to discuss her favorite memories and post-grad plans.
The Argus: Can you talk about some of the things you’ve been doing on campus or any activities or academics?
Mary Johnson: I really enjoyed doing lots of different extracurricular stuff at Wesleyan. One of the things I’ve done that’s the most important to me has been volunteering with the Center for Prison Education, where I’ve volunteered since my freshman year. I’ve been really lucky to do a lot of really cool things with them. I’ve been a research assistant. I’ve been an in-facility tutor. I’ve tutored twice in Cheshire, which is the men’s prison that we work with. My sophomore year, organized a performance fundraiser for them, which was so fun and it really brought together some alums from our program and also people from campus, which was really special.
Right now we’re actually working on a really exciting new project, which is going to be a re-entry fundraiser because increasingly a lot of people in our program who have been incarcerated are being released and reentering the community and they have a lot of needs that are not covered by existing infrastructure. Especially with COVID-19, it’s so hard, it was already so hard for people who have been incarcerated to get jobs and reintegrate, but now it’s especially hard. So, we are starting this fund to hopefully raise money from the Wesleyan community to help people cover some of the costs associated with reentry.
A: What made you interested in doing that kind of work?
MJ: The incoming read for my freshmen class was “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander and that’s a book that has really shaped my life and my thinking in a lot of ways. Obviously, at this point, it’s a little bit outdated in some ways and there’s lots of new and interesting work coming out on criminal justice, but it really opened my eyes in a lot of ways. I came from a very sheltered background so I didn’t really put all the issues with the criminal justice system on my radar and it inspired me to just learn more. I was really lucky, in addition to working with the Center for Prison Education, to intern with a former public defender in DC two summers ago and I learned a lot from that experience too, about just the day-to-day work of defending people in the criminal justice system.
A: In addition to your volunteer work, what other sorts of clubs or extracurricular activities have you been involved with?
MJ: One of my favorite things that I’ve done actually since my freshman year, has been dancing in TERP, which is so sad that it can’t happen this semester. I know that’s been a real loss for a lot of people. I’ve been a dancer my whole life and TERP, I think, is just so wonderful because it’s the most welcoming dance space I’ve ever been a part of and there’s something about it that’s very special because anyone can dance in TERP. TERP is wonderful because anyone from any walk of life on campus can just walk up and do it and perform with people and make new friends. I’ve choreographed for two or three times, and that’s always been a huge highlight of my semesters in the past. But another extracurricular that I really enjoy is being a part of Throw Culture, which is Wesleyan’s co-ed ultimate Frisbee team. I joined the team last fall, so I joined a little bit late in the game, but it’s just been one of the most incredible, welcoming communities I’ve ever been a part of. I was really intimidated at first because I was very confused. I had never played Frisbee before, but people were so welcoming and always take the time to explain things to me on the sidelines and just always tried to integrate new members no matter what skill level they were at. I think it’s the first sports team I’ve ever been a part of that really cared just as much, if not more, about having fun than about winning or like playing at a really high level. But there also are so many people who, despite the fact that they love having fun and are really there to support each other, also are such incredibly talented athletes and it was really cool to see their love for this sport and their commitment to making it a really fun and inclusive space.
A: Your nominator said that you took a semester off because of a concussion. Would you care to elaborate on that?
MJ: Oh my gosh. Well, I’m going to look really silly, but the first week of my sophomore year, I was running around, you know, between a million meetings for different things that I was doing and I was like, oh, ‘I’ll just pop into Weshop to get a nice cold drink.’ I actually hit my head on the door of Weshop while I was walking in. I pulled it open and I just clocked myself. It became very clear very soon that I was quite concussed and I ended up having to take the whole semester off. But it was an incredibly humbling experience in a lot of ways, because I think we take our bodies and our good health for granted so often here and I know I definitely have, I think all students do, always push[ed] myself to the limits in terms of sleep deprivation of what my body can handle, but it really made me realize that we’re so lucky to have good health and we do have it. And also we need to really enjoy those moments because things can really change in an instant, but it was like an amazing experience that I actually learned a lot from. I got in touch with people at the disability resources office. Crystal [Rose Hill] in particular is a wonderful resource and I didn’t actually know before then that even if you don’t have a pre-existing disability, if you have an injury that’s debilitating or a concussion, you can actually work with a disability resource office to navigate your classes and your needs, which was really awesome.
A: I heard that you recently conducted a Shabbat service last Friday. How has your participation in Wesleyan Jewish Community (WJC)-related events changed over time or influenced your University experience at large?
MJ: When I first arrived on campus, I had never been to a Shabbat service. Or really participated in much Jewish life at all. My junior fall, I ended up living in the Bayit because I was scrambling to find housing and I had a really close friend who was living there so we were roommates. While I was looking there I learned that they had Shabbat services on the first floor every Friday and anyone could go. It was so inclusive and such a warm and wonderful space. It was the only religious service I’d ever been to that was completely led by young people. So there was a life and vitality to it, that was really unique. In pre-COVID times, the services would be led by students. Sometimes they would have instruments like guitars, percussion, whatever and then we would all eat dinner together that had been home-cooked by students within the community. That was just so special to me. I felt so embraced even though I’m not Jewish and I just really loved it so I kept coming back.
And this semester I’ve been really proud of how the Jewish community has continued to find ways to connect even in this sort of strange distanced time. So, there have been Shabbat services capped at I think 25 for a while, usually meeting in the Hogwarts tent or the Labyrinth tent socially, just outside, no dinner, but still the same sense of care between people in the community for each other. So that was really wonderful and I always knew I wanted to give back if I could, before I left, so a couple of weeks ago I actually gave a D’Var Torah, which is a commentary on the Torah portion for the week. I gave it on the Noah portion about Noah’s arc, so it was quite depressing, but also I think illuminating. Last week, I led services with my friend, Shayna Dollinger ’22, which was a really wonderful experience, and humbling also because I made many mistakes, but so wonderful and such an honor.
A: What is your major and why did you decide to major in it?
MJ: I’m kind of a unique combination. I am a religion major with a data analysis minor, which gets a lot of interesting responses from parents and people outside of Wesleyan who are like, what are you going to do with that? I knew I wanted to do something in the social sciences when I came to Wesleyan and I really think honestly, if I could have majored in everything I would have. I’m just that much of a nerd.
One of the things I love the most about the religion major is a sense of respect for the people that you’re studying and a sense of maintaining your respect for their autonomy and their agency, even if you personally might disagree or take issue with what they believe or what they practice.
And then, I minor in data analysis so I also spend a lot of time in the QAC. I would say one of my proudest accomplishments of Wesleyan is taking every single class that professor Valerie Nazzaro offers. For those who don’t know, Valerie is just one of the most wonderful people in the world, in my opinion. She’s so kind and just like a really talented professor. I was really lucky to take a class with her my freshman fall called data visualization. I don’t even know how I got into that class because apparently there’s a 40 to 50 person waiting list to get into it every semester it’s offered now, but there were like three spots available for freshmen. I got in and I was so lost, but I really learned so much. I went to the QAC tutoring center every night to work on my homework and I realized that there were seniors in my class and they were also in the tutoring center, so we really learned a lot together. Valerie really made me realize that coding and data analysis is not something that’s only for STEM people, but really anyone can do it and anyone can access it, especially here. I’ve been really lucky to be able to take pretty much every class she offers and also complete the minor in data analysis and then this semester I’ve been a peer mentor for her applied data analysis class, which has just been so much fun and such an honor as well.
A: Moving on to your broader experience here, what was your most profound memory throughout your four years here, or, I guess, your extended period of time at Wesleyan?
MJ: That’s really tough. There have been so many moments that have been so wonderful, but one that really stands out in my mind is my freshman year. I went to the film series and they were playing Moana. I had a lovely freshman year in a lot of ways, but I think as many freshmen do, I kind of struggled to like find my place a little bit. I was just so surprised, pleasantly surprised, to see all these people, all these college students lined up to see this children’s movie. The line was out the door and people were so, so excited. There’s just something really special about watching that movie altogether. People cheered and clapped and people laughed together and it was just such a beautiful experience. Everyone came out of that movie with such big smiles on their face and I just felt such a connection to other people here. I think that was the first time that I was like, yes, this is, this is the place. I have so much gratitude for my time at Wesleyan. I’ve learned so much and it’s been amazing to meet so many different people.
A: So what are your post-graduate plans?
MJ: I am planning for the next few months to move back home to DC with my parents, which is, I feel, a very typical pandemic graduation move. Probably just get a babysitting or nannying job, but then kind of in the longer term, I’m planning to apply to a couple of different service fellowships for the next year. My main choice is this wonderful program called the Quaker Voluntary Service Fellowship that several Wesleyan students in the years previous have done. It’s a really wonderful option where students who are accepted into the program live in a house with a small number of other fellows, and they work at a nonprofit in the area where they’re placed. They also have a lot of interface with the Quaker community, and talk about what it means to live out values of service, which is something that really appeals to me. I’m a religion major so I love being around spiritual communities and being part of them.
TA: Is there anything you want to add about your time at Wesleyan?
MJ: This is like maybe very basic, but try new things. I would say this is probably the biggest advice I have for people coming into Wesleyan even just going through their journeys at Wesleyan. I feel like one of the things that I have been so, so privileged by having a slightly non-traditional path through Wesleyan, and taking time off, and I’m graduating kind of mid-year is that I was able to meet so many people in different class years and different walks of life on campus kind of by accident. I ended up trying new things every year. I’m so, so grateful for that, and my life has been enriched by meeting all these different people in so many ways. Don’t be afraid. If you see someone, say hi to them, just ask them to get a meal. I think so many friendships I’ve had have just come from people asking me to get meals and me asking them to give me stuff. Don’t be afraid to reach out because there are so many people here who want to be your friend. I want to be your friend, but I’m graduating, but we can still be friends. Facebook message me!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Olivia Ramseur can be reached at Oramseur@wesleyan.edu
Oliver Cope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org