Literature has always been a passion and an escape for Phillip Johnston, 22, and he hopes it soon will be a career as well.
The 2010 Community College of Rhode Island General Studies graduate grew up in Providence’s inner city, where his mother struggled to make ends meet.
“There were times when we didn’t know how we were going to pay the bills,” Johnston said, “There were times when the lights got shut off, but she tried really hard and did a good job.”
Reading was always a sanctuary for Johnston, and he began to write his own stories.
“When times got really tough I ran to my imagination,” he said. “Writing and creating characters has always been a hobby of mine. The fact that all the great stories you hear are all from someone’s ideas and imagination gives me a very special feeling.”
Johnston never knew his father and was raised by a patchwork of individuals, he said, from his mother and aunt to cousins and teachers. “I was lucky enough to have good people around me, keeping me on the good path,” he said. “I owe all my success to them.”
When Johnston graduated from Central High School in 2005, he knew he wanted to continue his education in some way, but wasn’t sure exactly what to study or where to go. “I knew that I loved being at school and I loved learning new things, but I wasn’t sure where the money was going to come from,” he said.
Several people recommended CCRI to Johnston as a place where he could stay in the academic environment he loved for an affordable price, a place where “you don’t have to play the hand you’re dealt.
“I heard that CCRI was a hub for those students who are looking for themselves … it turned out to be that and so much more,” Johnston said.
He enrolled at the college in Fall 2005 and worked at the Liston Campus Information Technology Department as a work-study job, but he sometimes still had trouble paying bills.
The last time the lights and gas were shut off in his home was in the fall of 2008, while he was taking three classes. He slept on friends’ floors whenever possible and, when he was at home, took a cold shower in the dark before going to school.
“I had to go to class with my game-face on,” Johnston said. “People expected things of me and I was going to deliver.”
These people included many of CCRI’s teachers and staffers: Assistant English and Drama Professor Theodore Clement; Associate English Professor Laurie Sherman and the rest of faculty of the Liston Campus English department; Stephanie M. Cruz, the associate director of Educational Opportunity Center, a federally funded TRIO program; Liston Campus Interim Director Walter Crocker; and Dolly Quigley of the Liston IT Department.
Johnston’s professors also encouraged him to embrace his interest in literature. He plans to stay in school to earn a master’s degree and eventually a doctorate in English literature so that he can be a college professor. He may even want to return to teach at CCRI someday. “It would be very special to come back to this place that way,” he said.
Johnston has been accepted to Rhode Island College and Providence College and is working out each school’s financial aid offerings before making a final choice. He said he hopes to remain living in Providence, where the city’s artistic environment reminds him of the Harlem Renaissance, his favorite literary period.
He said he will always remember the start he got at CCRI. “It definitely changed my life coming here, like it does for all graduates,” he said. “When people come to CCRI, they leave here and they’re transformed.”