Persistence pays off

July 26, 2000

Judith Zwolak

When she reached the age of 43, Terri Johnson decided her life was lacking something. She loved her full-time job as the administrative secretary in the Department of Pediatrics; she adored her four young grandchildren, whom she cared for every weekend; and she was devoted to her favorite hobbies-reading and sewing.

"I decided to do something for myself, and that was to go back and finish my education," says Johnson, now 46 and a sophomore with a 3.8 average in University College's Paralegal Studies Program. "We all need goals in life, and as we get older we find ourselves with new goals."

Johnson, who is one of approximately 140 staff members currently pursuing degrees at Tulane, took on her new goal with gusto. While researching the library, she found a book with a test that matched a person's skills and traits with a specific profession. The test results showed she would make a successful statistician or paralegal.
She took the recommendation to heart and enrolled in the Paralegal Studies Program in 1996. Judging by Johnson's steady stream of "A" and "A-minus" grades and a recent nomination to the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, the decision was a sound one. Still, her secret to balancing a job and her studies boils down to hard work and tenacity.

"What I might lack in some areas, I make up for in persistence," she says. "I don't give up."

Taking two night courses each semester while working full time hasn't been easy, Johnson admits, especially last semester, when she took the challenging pre-law and business law courses.

"It wouldn't be that bad if I didn't really study or apply myself," she says. "But I'm not one of those people who can read and interpret something the first time. I have to work at it."

For 16 of her 19 years at Tulane, Johnson has worked with Johnette Frentz, professor of pediatrics-endocrinology and a distinct influence on Johnson's professional and academic life.

"She's a perfectionist," Johnson says. "Being with her for 16 years has made me pick up a lot of that." A diligent work ethic isn't Johnson's only secret to success, says Nancy Wagner, director of the Paralegal Studies Program. "When I first met with Terri, she was very excited about coming back to school and she's maintained that excitement," Wagner says.

Keeping up the initial level of enthusiasm is one of the greatest challenges to students in the program, the majority of whom also work full time, Wagner says.

"The challenge is finding time to study while balancing their personal lives with their jobs and academics," she says. "The students do an amazing job."

When she graduates from the program, Johnson says she's not sure how she'll use her new degree. She is certain, however, that her skills will go toward helping those less fortunate. "I want to work on cases where you feel you did something good for someone," she says. "I might work part time for a public defender and still work here or volunteer my time. But my degree won't go to waste. I have to do some good with it."

For now, the perfect grade point average-not future job prospects-weighs most heavily on Johnson's mind. "I'm striving for that 4.0," she says. "I want to see that one time in my life."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000