Environmental studies major Maya Johnson won’t graduate until May, but she’s already giving back.

Farm Credit/National MANRRS VIP Scholar herself, Johnson has established a scholarship to help high school students from her hometown of Bowie, Maryland, buy books, an overlooked – but costly – part of the freshman experience.

“I wanted to give back,” she said. “My family and community in Bowie, as well as my N.C. A&T family, have done so much to help me find my way and feel comfortable being far from home. I wanted to be an Aggie who did the same and put incoming freshmen at ease when coming into a brand new environment.”

The M.L. Johnson Reach One Book Scholarship, now aiming for its third year, was this year funded by a grant that Johnson applied for and received from the Psi Epsilon Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.

Johnson’s inspiration for starting a scholarship was her own family’s example. During Johnson’s childhood, her grandmother set aside money for each grandchild’s college books, gifting the funds to them at the start of each semester.

“I wanted to duplicate the experience of helping, particularly for first-year students,” she said. “When I came to A&T, I learned how hard it can be to be away from home, on your own to figure things out. I wanted to help financially and by sharing what I know.”

Johnson’s freshman experience was also made easier by Antoine Alston, Ph.D., professor and associate dean, who became a mentor during her first time on campus as part of the Research Apprentice Program, the CAES’s summer program for high school students. Since then, Johnson says, Alston has given her excellent advice.

“He’s like a father five hours away,” said Johnson, who is currently at home in Maryland. “He’s so welcoming, and he helped me find my way into my current major and the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Design. Dr. Goins, the NRED department chair, has also been a great mentor to me.”

Following their example, Johnson became a mentor herself. Having navigated her freshman year, she decided to become an Aggie Success Leader, an orientation counselor. She was assigned six students and found that her advice to them was deeply appreciated.

“I learned how important having a mentor is, and I wanted to be that for an incoming freshman who was once in my shoes,” she said. “I didn’t realize how hard it is for parents to let their children go. I thought, ‘What can I do to ease this?’

“I decided to be the one to lift their spirits, and so I started very deliberately working with my mentees. I committed to them. We would meet and do homework or talk. At first, some of them were very dependent on me, but after the first year, they got the hang of it. I still keep in touch with many of them, and we meet for coffee or just to see how they are doing.”

In December 2018, with help from her family, she pulled together the funds for what she named the M.L. Johnson Reach One Book Scholarship: “Reach One” to emphasize her desire to pay her rewarding college experience forward in helping new college students.

“It took a lot of time on the name, actually,” she said, laughing. “I thought about it the whole winter break. I wanted it to really stand for what I was trying to do.”

Johnson started at her own high school alma mater, Charles H. Flowers High School in Springdale, Maryland. She passed out packets to teachers and guidance counselors, spoke to the PTA and the principal. She was rewarded with applications, and she awarded her first scholarship in May 2019 to a Flowers student who is now a rising sophomore at N.C. A&T.

“I knew then that I wanted to give again – I wanted to make it a habit,” she said. So, to help expand the scholarship, she wrote a proposal this spring for a community grant through the Psi Epsilon Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.

In January, Johnson was notified that she received the $630 grant, enough for two students’ book scholarships and gifts. To match the larger awards, she opened the applicant pool to students from the other public high schools in Prince George’s County in addition to her alma mater.

This spring, despite restrictions resulting from COVID-19, Johnson awarded scholarships to two graduating seniors, both attending N.C. A&T, driving to their houses to deliver the good news with a giant checks and gift bags.

“It was awesome,” she said. “College is a lot to get used to and work through, and it meant a lot that I could help someone.”

In future years, Johnson said she hopes that her mentees will help her continue the scholarship as her legacy of assisting incoming freshmen with their adjustment to college.

“I’m confident that one of them will step into this role,” she said. “I don’t look at them as mentees. They’re my A&T family, and they’re already doing great things.”