Jarrel Johnson plans to one day serve a research-intensive university as president. When Jarrel isn't studying, he enjoys spending time with his dog Princeton, working out, listening to music, and hanging out with friends.
Doctoral student Jarrel Johnson investigates intersecting identities, higher education’s role in inclusion
Jarrel Johnson didn’t expect that his interest in exploring Black identities would bring him to study in Ames, Iowa, but the opportunities and community he’s found at Iowa State University have helped him transform his passions into tangible research findings.
“I always had this sense of pride [in my Black identity]. It was important for me to be in [an educational] space and continue that legacy that my ancestors have fought for,” Jarrel said.
Before coming to Iowa State, Jarrel attended Shaw University in North Carolina for his bachelor’s degree in English and earned his master’s in higher education leadership at Mercer University in Atlanta. He then entered the workforce as a financial aid adviser at Emory University in Atlanta, and then later became assistant dean of Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences in New York.
“I got a sense of working with students from all types of backgrounds,” he said. “Students bring all their identities. Those experiences have value, and cultural wealth.”
Working with diverse students made Jarrel realize that he wanted to dig deeper into how people’s identities may affect their quality of education. After talking with a family member who earned their doctoral degree at Iowa State, he headed to the Midwest to study higher education administration.
“Toward the end of my practitioner years, I started to have more questions than answers about higher ed and how we were practicing student affairs work and doing diversity and equity work. I just knew it was time for me to make that shift [to research],” Jarrel said.
Jarrel’s time at Iowa State has consisted of the research side of student affairs. His dissertation research involves two “strands”: (1) exploring how students’ race, gender, sexuality, and class identities intersect and affect their experiences within higher education institutions — mainly historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — and (2) the role that the institutions play in those experiences. He is now investigating how two HBCUs work to promote the inclusion of queer and trans* students on their campuses.
“We need to move beyond the conversation that HBCUs are not doing enough for our queer and trans* students to, ‘What are these small numbers of HBCUs that are doing this work, what are they doing, how are they doing it, and how can that translate to other campuses?’” he said.
Jarrel has organized his career into “phases of influence.” Currently in the research and teaching phase, he plans to push higher education institutions forward in the next phase by serving as a college or university president.
“I want to impact the communities I serve and which I’m a part of. I hope that my research empowers and emancipates people to live the best versions of their lives,” Jarrel said.