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Johnson draws on her own journey of self-discovery to help students

Danielle Johnson is now two semesters away from completing a doctorate that explores spiritualism and sexuality within the LGBTQ community. Photo: NANCY J. PARISI

By LAUREN NEWKIRK MAYNARD

Published October 11, 2012

Danielle Johnson is on a mission both professional and personal, spiritual yet grounded in research.

With a gentle air of conviction, Johnson, an academic adviser in the Daniel Acker Scholars Program in UB’s Cora P. Maloney College, describes her role on campus: to help students figure out who they are and how they fit into the world. And, ultimately, to help them succeed.

Johnson’s job as an adviser is to uncover pathways for her students, whether they need academic advice about the Acker program or about their other studies. Increasingly, however, student groups also look to her for leadership within UB’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer (LGBTQ) population.

Johnson is something of a star among the local LGBTQ community. Last spring, she was named the first recipient of the Lavender Star Award for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered and Queer Leadership at UB. She was honored to have been nominated by her boss and longtime mentor, Letitia Thomas, assistant vice provost and director of Cora P. Maloney College, and her colleague and friend Gudiya Msuku-Purks, senior academic adviser in the Arthur O. Eve Educational Opportunity Program. The award will be given each year by the Buffalo Center Chapter of United University Professions (UUP) and its LGBTQ Committee.

Johnson says it’s been “a great honor” to be recognized by UUP for her work to advance a culture of tolerance and acceptance. UB, she adds, is unique in that its large size belies a real sense of community among its tight-knit student communities. Its faculty, too, have shown great openness in the classroom toward discussing LGBTQ issues and giving students room in which to discover themselves.

First-year students of all stripes, she says, are anxious to find peer groups on campus and seek out comfortable environments where they feel they can belong. A longtime friend of UB Wellness Education Services, especially Jim Bowman, special populations outreach coordinator, and Sherri Darrow, director, Johnson recently took part in the unit’s 2012 outreach video “It Gets Better ,” echoing a national movement toward LGBTQ acceptance and advocacy. The video features UB students, faculty and staff who are positively working through their own unique issues.

Johnson’s own journey toward self-discovery began when she was very young, rooted in what she calls her family’s “deep spirituality.” Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in New Orleans for several years before moving to Buffalo, she initially majored in chemical engineering at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., before switching her major to humanities and discovering the field of higher education administration.

This shift to her current profession came about in large part, Johnson says, because of Tony Collins, her mentor and then dean of the Clarkson engineering school who later became president of the university. “He really believed in me and my abilities,” she recalls. “I feel blessed to have met him. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for Tony.”

Mentors continued to play a key role in Johnson’s career. After graduating from Clarkson, she began work on her master’s degree at Buffalo State College, where she studied student personnel administration. At Buffalo State, Amy Reynolds, then a senior psychologist in the college’s Counseling Center, mentored Johnson through the process of applying for admission to pursue her doctorate before Johnson enrolled in the higher education program in UB’s Graduate School of Education in 2004.

At UB, she met her adviser and longtime mentor and dissertation chair, Raechele Pope, associate professor of education, leadership and policy. Pope and Reynolds, both of whom are now associate professors at UB, are guiding Johnson through her doctoral studies.

After switching dissertation topics several times, Johnson is now two semesters away from completing a PhD that explores spiritualism and sexuality within the LGBTQ community. “I finally came across an article about the topic and realized how it connected to my personal and spiritual feelings about life,” she says. “It just felt right.”

During her second year in the doctoral program, Johnson came out as a lesbian to friends, family and colleagues, profoundly connecting her professional and personal lives. “I wasn’t sure if God would approve of me identifying as a lesbian,” she says. Even with her family’s support, it wasn’t until she arrived at UB that Johnson says she became comfortable enough to accept herself openly.

Since then, as she says in the “It Gets Better” video, working with such groups as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Alliance Student Association “has helped me heal in ways I hadn’t anticipated. To see them be so confident and secure within themselves is just so amazing.”