Sydney Johnson (Class of 2014)

photo of Sydney Johnson

  • senior Black World Studies major
  • from Lima, OH
  • Interned in summer 2013 at the brand-new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC
  • discovered the works of African-American artist Minnie Evans
  • elected to Phi Beta Kappa, America's oldest honorary society for the arts and sciences (March 2014)
"Black World Studies—studying the black world—definitely solidified for me that I'd made the right choice in coming to Miami."

Why Miami?

"Miami was one of the few schools in this area that had Black World Studies as a major, and I've known ever since middle school that that's what I wanted to study. I also got the largest financial aid package, so that was a large determining factor.

"My first year was interesting—a lot of ups and downs with relationships, making new friends, just really getting to know myself. Academic-wise, it really wasn't that challenging because I had a good foundation from high school. And, like I said, I always knew that I wanted to study Black World Studies and my culture so that wasn't really hard at all.

"The courses in my major are really interesting because they give you insight into your own history, your own past, that you might not normally get in a regular American history course. The fact that it's specifically Black World Studies—studying the black world—definitely solidified for me that I'd made the right choice in coming to Miami."

Best Things About Miami

"I love the location and the scenery. Miami is such an amazingly beautiful campus, and it's just far enough away from my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. And most importantly, the relationships I have made here have been great. I've made some great lifetime friendships here in my four years, and also the faculty here are really willing to help you.

"For example, there's Dr. Rodney Coates, the Black World Studies academic advisor. I've known him since my first semester of freshman year. He taught my Intro to Black World Studies class, so he's been helping me all four years and he's a great mentor. There's also Professor Nishani Frazier. She's been a great resource, always pushing me to apply for various opportunities and helping me solidify my career path and goals. Both of them have been so influential and definitely an essential part of my time here.

"Also, I've been an R.A. [resident assistant] for the past two and a half years, and that's been my most influential leadership position—just being able to help other students through their college experiences. Being in a sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Incorporated, has also been very influential and important in my growth as a student here and as a person. And then there's the internship that I had this summer—it's greatly influenced my time here at Miami."

Exploring Black World Studies

Sydney Johnson wearing traditional clothing

"I want to be a museum curator at an African American history museum, so Black World Studies will definitely help me because it's just given me a great foundational knowledge. It's really shown me that the Africans and people of African descent, wherever they may be in the Diaspora, are situated in the global context. Just being able to go into my chosen field with extensive knowledge of the African diaspora and African-American history will put me on a different playing field than others who might not necessarily have that educational background.

"One of my favorite courses so far was my African-American History course with Professor Frazier, which I took after both of my Intro to Black World Studies courses. It was just really cool to get a whole class just on the history of Africans in America and our journey from slavery to present times. I learned lots of facts—of course the basics about famed figures such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King—as well as interesting tidbits you are not generally taught in the lower levels of school.

"My other favorite course was Intro to Public History, taught by Professor Helen Sheumaker. This one gave me a glimpse into the world of museums, the world of public history. Since Miami doesn't offer a museum studies or public history major, that course helped me focus on my goals and aspirations for post-graduation."

Miami and Liberal Arts Education

"When I first got to Miami I was kind of … well, not upset, but a little annoyed that I had to take all of these courses that I wasn't really interested in, specifically the language requirement which led me to take Latin for two years. And even though I did very well, I didn't really want to take it, but I had to. However, there's definitely merit in a liberal arts education. You get to explore many different disciplines. For someone who might not know what exactly they want to study, that's a great opportunity for them. They can explore different paths, different areas of study, and make a really informed decision instead of making it prematurely and getting stuck in a major that's not really for them.

"In my case, the good thing about Black World Studies is that most of the courses are cross-listed. So I've taken religion courses. I've taken political science courses. I've even taken geography courses. I've gotten to learn about different areas of study that aren't necessarily specifically related to Black World Studies. When you first look at the course title you wouldn't assume, 'Well, that has to do with black people or African Americans.' Liberal arts have given me a lot of really good insight to different areas. Just be open-minded—it's called liberal arts for a reason."

Internship in Washington, DC

Smithsonian Institution

"Although I didn't apply until the end of my junior year, as a sophomore I found out through Professor Frazier about a summer internship opportunity at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. It opens in 2015 and is the newest Smithsonian Museum; the galleries are still being composed and put together.

"I worked under Dr. Tuliza Fleming, an art curator there, and I did tons of research. Everyday I was running around DC, going to different libraries and different Smithsonian museums, gathering information that would be put into the opening galleries of the visual arts gallery for the entire museum. I learned so much about black art—art in general—because I had never taken a black art course here at Miami. So I went in kind of as a blank slate.

"I definitely feel like I learned so much there about museum work, curation and preservation, art, black art—it was a whole other world. It was so great, and it enhanced my writing skills because I wrote tons and tons: bibliographies, case studies, wall text, displays for artwork, everything you can think about. It was very cool.

"This was my first time in DC by myself, so I had to learn how to work the metro, the city bus, the streets—just getting around by myself. Being on my own definitely helped me find who I am. I'm 21 and still growing as a young woman, but it gave me a glimpse into who I am, who I am becoming, and who I want to be. I had never lived on my own, so it was just so cool living in a house by myself, having to be a grown-up, having to cook for myself, all that stuff.

"I made many visits to the American Art Portrait Gallery Libraries, because each Smithsonian Museum has its own specific library. Traveling around to those different libraries to gain vertical file information or books and also looking at the art just to gauge how different museums display artwork—all of this was such a great primer in museum work. It was just amazing.

"I also got to sit in on donor meetings, actually meeting with people who wanted to donate pieces of art by black artists. One of my most memorable meetings was with a donor who wanted to donate a Minnie Evans original piece. She's a little known black vernacular artist from the South who created works in crayon; they were all from visions she had that she said were sent from God. I had never heard about her before this summer, but seeing her works in person was one of my most prized experiences."

Advice to Students

"As a Miami student, you have all these opportunities to explore. It's really the only time you have to make different experiences and just live free and take a chance. But don't wait until your junior year to decide, 'Oh, I'm going to switch my major,' because you'll be here forever. Use maybe your first year and a half. You know, once you get to your sophomore year, you really should start trying to pin down your major. The College of Arts and Science really does give you the opportunity to explore different avenues of what may fit you specifically. Keep an open-mind and don't be afraid to try new courses in different areas.

"And study abroad, intern—because you can't really do that when you're a grown-up. Be sure to apply early. That's very important. Don't wait until the end of the deadline, because they start looking at those applications as soon as they come in, so you want to be fresh in their minds. And apply for everything. Opportunities come left and right. Don't be hesitant because of a lack of financial funds, or because a fear that you might not get it. Apply for everything. You never know what might happen!"

[September 2013]