The rough streets of Northwest Baltimore can cripple the dreams of even the most high-achieving teenagers. Tichon Johnson, a top scoring high school student, carried the emotional scars of losing a beloved uncle to gunfire and his best friend, dying the same way.
The two tragedies caught up to Tichon during his first semester at Williamson. He wondered if it was the right place for him as he struggled with the loss of two significant people in his life.
Tichon’s grades fell to a D that first difficult semester, and he considered dropping out. Deciding to stay on, he knew he had to try harder. “This is unacceptable,” he thought to himself. “I have to do better.”
And he did. He returned from Christmas break determined to turn things around. He brought up his GPA and got an A in shop. Director of Masonry Peter Zwolak 0W7 reflected on Tichon’s progress. “He struggled at the beginning, but every night he was in the shop, working it out, trying and trying and trying until he got it right.”
Tichon never had the benefit of a father’s love and advice. When he was eight years old, his father left to care for his parents and stayed away even after they both died. Tichon relied on his mother for financial support and his grandmother for moral support. She lived a few blocks away and was someone Tichon could really count on. “She’s like my best friend, really. She’s been there all the time. I’ve got so many cousins and she’s helped raise every one of them when she didn’t have to.”
Tichon did well in high school, graduating with a 3.1 GPA. He was uncertain about his future but a deal the principal struck with all the seniors set Tichon on the road to higher education. Until they applied to college, seniors couldn’t go to prom the principal told them. Tichon wanted to go to prom, so he applied to and got into University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Uncertain about the college, he asked his high school guidance counselor about it. She handed him a Williamson brochure. At first he was turned off because it was an all-male school. But then he read that Williamson offered full scholarships covering tuition, room and board. He figured it was worth a visit.
He remembers touring the campus, and how impressed he was with the students in brick shop, and the projects they were working on. “I saw something I’d never seen before. I never thought about joining the trades. I never knew what trades consisted of or what it took to enter the trades.”
After Tichon passed the entrance exam, Jay Merillat, Vice President of Enrollment Management, went to Baltimore to interview him. “I was impressed with his focus on getting a trade education and making a way for himself in life,” Mr. Merillat says. “You see, he comes from a tough part of Baltimore, and he saw Williamson as a way by which he could help himself and his family.”
Tichon was accepted to Williamson. He earned another scholarship from CollegeBound Foundation of Baltimore, enough to defer the cost of books. But just as he was getting settled, he got the tragic news about his Uncle Bernard, who was a father figure to Tichon. Just two years earlier, he had lost his 21-year-old best friend, Monard. “My uncle was an entrepreneur that owned a trucking company,” and had promised at his high school graduation to pay for Tichon’s college. “He told me whatever I wanted to do with my life, he was there for me. One hundred percent.”
That first semester at Williamson, Tichon kept to himself, coping with his feelings of loss and despair. Then he realized “that doesn’t work here. No way you can get through it without people. It’s not possible. You need people – someone to make you laugh, to make you smile. I don’t know what I would do if the Williamson guys weren’t around me.”
Mr. Zwolak observed the positive change over the years. “When Tichon is working, the other students look to him, to see what he’s doing and how he’s doing it. He is a man of action – reliable, and, as a senior, has really stepped up as a leader.”
Tichon has enjoyed the experience of mentoring freshman. Every senior gets the opportunity at Williamson. “I’ve only got one sister. So, I look at freshmen like they’re my little brothers. It’s been a cool relationship.”
Dennis Johnson has taught Personal Finance and math and business courses at Williamson for the past 33 years and has seen thousands of young men graduate. Tichon, he says, “is going to be a real asset to Williamson, going into the workforce.” The young man has integrity and personal responsibility. “He will get the job done. And then he follows up, lets you know he’s finished. Tichon gets it done, and done early.”
Tichon’s internship last summer with Whiting-Turner provided him the opportunity to see how he fared in the industry, outside of Williamson and his hometown. On his first day he encountered students from four-year colleges like Virginia Tech and Penn State. Intimidated at first, Tichon summoned up his pride to tell them he went to Williamson. He showed them pictures of projects he was working on in Brick shop. “They were really impressed,” he says.
Between his internship, the respect he commands from the freshmen he mentors, and the command and confidence he displays when he’s working among his peers, Tichon has summoned the ability to face challenges head on, and deal with adversity.
He may have lost two great men in his life, but he has gained the admiration and respect from the men that now make up the Williamson brotherhood.
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