Olivia Johnson Wins the 2023 Eleanor Main Student Mentor Award

By Karina Antenucci

Olivia Johnson

Olivia Johnson, Sociology PhD Candidate

Throughout her years at Laney Graduate School, Olivia Johnson, a sixth-year doctoral candidate in Sociology, sought multiple opportunities to support, guide, uplift, and communicate on behalf of fellow graduate students.

Johnson, who will graduate in December 2023, is the recipient of this year's Eleanor Main Graduate Student Mentor Award, which recognizes mentoring of the highest quality in graduate education and is presented at LGS's spring diploma ceremony.

Named in honor of the late Dr. Eleanor Main, the award recognizes a student mentor who sets the standard for mentorship at Emory. It is a fitting tribute to the mentor as well as to Dr. Eleanor Main, who was a transformative leader at Emory and a strong advocate for graduate students and faculty.

“Winning the Eleanor Main award feels like a culmination of my graduate career thus far, and I'm honored. It isn't often that mentorship is formally recognized and rewarded. Oftentimes it is seen as a distraction from the real goal to get in and do your dissertation and get out. But if I can't help people while doing that then there's really no point,” said Johnson, who is originally from Pensacola, Florida, and attended undergraduate and master's studies in Sociology at the University of South Florida.

In her first year at LGS, Johnson became the graduate student liaison to communicate the needs of her graduate cohort, and sometimes, the graduate student body, to the rest of the department. In her second year, she implemented a mini-teacher training program to coach first-year students. In her third year, she served on multiple committees, and helped to develop and issue a mentoring survey for her department. When the pandemic hit during her fourth year, Johnson was the only student to remain on the leadership board for the Coalition of Graduate Sociologists and hosted multiple zoom events to keep student morale high.

“I've had the privilege of having good mentorship, and I just wanted to carry that flame. It is super important to me to lift others up,” said Johnson.

Dean Kimberly Jacob Arriola (left) celebrating the achievements of Eleanor Main Student Mentor Award winner Olivia Johnson (middle)

Additionally, as an EDGE (or Emory Diversifying Graduate Education) fellow, among her many activities, Johnson served as a lead mentor in the Peer-to-Peer mentoring program that was co-sponsored by Laney EDGE and the Office for Racial and Cultural Engagement. She also worked on the Summer Opportunity for Academic Research (SOAR) program, where she helped to revitalize the Humanities and Social Sciences curriculum.

“One of my mentees from SOAR just got into grad school,” said Johnson proudly. And she calls another mentee who attends Emory one of her best friends. “We are a great example of how friendship can blossom from mentorship.”

Johnson's work as a mentor extends beyond the examples above and outside of Emory, including mentoring pre-teen and teenaged children whose lives have been impacted by domestic violence.

Family is deeply important to Johnson and both her mentorship and research focus reflect this. As a historical sociologist, she studies Black motherhood and Black childhood and their connection to racial domination.

“At the core of what I do, I want to contribute new ways to think about Black families and particularly Black children and how allowing them to have a full range of the human experience could truly offer liberation for us all,” Johnson said.

With one semester to go as an Emory student, Johnson is exploring career opportunities. Having had a palpable impact on the educational experiences of other students and the broader community alike has changed her trajectory from professor to other kinds of student-facing positions in or outside of academia.