Dawn Marie Johnson

Dawn Johnson

21st Century Community Learning Center Director, Summit School District
Watertown, SD
Social Work, 2012

"Take risks, cheer extra loud, try a new class, make friends in the drive-through “walking” line, be that kid who becomes the professor's right-hand man or woman, let out your inner nerd or release stress at the wellness center. Do all the things that may have made you uncomfortable and take the time to find yourself among the chaos of life."

Q&A with Dawn:

Describe your current educational or professional pursuits.

Currently, I am the director of Summit School District’s 21st Century Community Learning Center Out of School Time and Summer Program. I was sought out by Summit School District when they were awarded the 21st Century Grant to build, grow and host a successful afterschool (also known as OST) and summer program. I oversee 12 staff members, uphold the Department of Social Services policies as a licensed childcare provider and ensure we are meeting grant standards. I also assist the school in their emergency procedures and its team members as I help facilitate evacuation drills and continue to develop policies to ensure student and staff safety.

Outside of those duties, I host numerous successful community events each year. I have been fortunate the Summit School District is open to collaborating with family engagement efforts during parent-teacher conferences and other dates throughout the year. My program oversees two of the biggest community engagement nights titled Lights On Afterschool, which hosted over 300 people and our Family Summer Bash, which saw nearly 175. Collaborative efforts are made with the Title Program and other in-house organizations to host grandparent’s day, a Snow Ball, culture night, Veterans Day Program, community Thanksgiving meal, math/literacy night and a parent breakfast. The family engagement was my focus when applying for graduate school in the winter of 2018 as I see its positive impact on students and the community.

As a co-founder of Children’s Health Always Matters Partnership (CHAMP), our primary focus has been the health and well-being of the students in the Summit Area. In partnership with the Rural Child Poverty and Nutrition grant, we were able to serve 4,853 afterschool snacks in the 2018 school year. CHAMP volunteers also helped in serving food during the community Thanksgiving meal. From here, we hope to focus on child mental health in our community and school district.

In 2017, I was asked to serve on the Bachelor of Social Work Advisory Board. I signed a three-year contract to meet annually and work to better the program as we evolve as a profession. Having direct experience in the program provides the board a firsthand account in the efforts made by this group to ensure best practice for all BSW students and staff at USD. As an alumna, I find it very important to give feedback and continue to make collaborative efforts to improve every year.

In 2019, I became interim eastern representative for South Dakota School Age Care Alliance (SoDakSACA) group. The mission of SoDakSACA is “to promote quality Out-of-School Time programs for children and youth through professional development and public advocacy.” As the newest member, I have been assigned the great task to partner with a western state representative and host the 2020 annual Day at the Capitol. This event gives afterschool programs and program affiliates a chance to showcase why our profession is vital to the children and families of South Dakota. This year, I have selected the theme of “Bring Your Best,” encouraging all afterschool program students to display their favorite part of the program to show legislatures. I will be traveling with students to Spearfish in October to present on the benefits of attending this event. Last year, as attendees, we were able to network with policymakers and given a chance to speak to Governor Kristi Noem. This event, along with being an active member of other SoDakSACA efforts, embodies what social work is all about — advocating for those who may not be able to do it for themselves.

Comprised of afterschool affiliates across the state and nation, in July 2019, I have begun my role as a member of the South Dakota Afterschool Network Leadership Team. SoDakSACA and Afterschool Network work closely together, and it is helpful to be familiarized with both organizations. They take on the responsibility of advocating for children and families of South Dakota in providing quality afterschool and summer programs. Since joining the Leadership Team, I have been asked to share information with other programs such as resources, professional development and other leadership opportunities. “The mission of the South Dakota Afterschool Network is to support and sustain quality afterschool, out of school time (OST) and youth development programs to serve the needs of South Dakota’s youth.”

As I mentioned before, I wrote about family engagement in my graduate school application. I am ecstatic that I have been enrolled in the Master of Social Work program with USD, which started the summer of 2018. Anticipated graduation date is May 2020! I could not fathom applying to any other school having such a supportive undergraduate group and valuable connections made to continue my education in graduate school.

How did your USD experience influence your career path?

I feel much of what I have done thus far in my life can be attributed to my experience at the University of South Dakota. The people I have networked with, the professors I had, courses I took, friends I have made, organizations I became a part of, the alumni board I serve on and now through the continuation of education have all shaped my career path. From the timeline of events, awards I have received and educational choices I have made, I have always been a proud alumni and student.

In 2009, I participated in a study abroad program for social service credit. It became much more than a three-credit course. While I was in Ghana, Africa, I experienced life-changing moments. Most I hold near and dear to my heart and rarely share with others as it has impacted much of the way I view the world. The one experience I will never forget is a child, around the age of my daughter, attempting to write on a scrap of paper to practice the alphabet. During his lesson, he brought out a razor blade to sharpen his pencil. Barely 19 years old, I was blown away by the conditions of which these young students had to be in to obtain an education. Despite so many obstacles, poverty and limited access to educators, children were appreciative of any learning experience they could receive. I knew after that trip I wanted to work in some capacity as an educator to ensure every child was provided an opportunity to succeed despite their socioeconomic status.

USD prepared me to enter the professional world in more than one way. The student services and USD’s commitment to diversity helped me transition into college and cope with any loss or changes in my life. The passion for my career choice began early on when I was able to witness a mentor in Wiwokiya share her journey. The determination of working hard and being a part of advocacy efforts for families and children was inspired by the undergraduate social work program and its faculty. Hard work and dedication were built from leading my rugby team on the pitch. Moreover, lastly, determination to continue to gain knowledge, perfect my craft and become a leader on a grander scale came from the decision to continue my education through obtaining my master’s degree with USD. I do not feel I would be where I am today without the choice I made to attend the University of South Dakota.

Tell us about your proudest achievement.

Since the start of the afterschool program in 2016, I have helped double attendance in our OST and Summer Enrichment Program, have been selected as Summit’s community member of spring 2016, have been nominated to apply for the Annie E. Casey Foundation Children and Family Fellowship, had our OST and Summer Program selected to be highlighted in a final case study for the Department of Education in 2018 and was accepted in Advanced Standings to pursue my Master of Social Work through the University of South Dakota. In the spring of 2019, I was named National Afterschool Association’s Next Generation of Leaders and was presented on stage at their annual national conference in New York City. More recently, my program and I were awarded the Patriotic Employer award from the Office of the Secretary of Defense for our support of staff members in the Army Guard and Reserve.

Despite all these awards, my greatest achievement is being a mom to a sassy, spunky, smarty-pants five-year-old girl. Where all the above awards and successes are great, my main goal in life is to be the best I can be for my daughter, Rhayn Marie. I hope she looks at what I have accomplished by 30 years of age and strives to do more for herself and those around her. Her caring nature already shows me that she understands that there is more to this world, and I hope one day, she can say she is proud of me. She is my inspiration to do better and be better.

What was your USD experience like? Were you involved in any campus organizations or activities?

Initially, what attracted me to USD was the opportunity to spend more time with my dad. During my sophomore year of high school, he was diagnosed with cancer, and the same year was accepted into USD’s early education program. Feeling inspired and wanting to not miss a moment with him, I applied to USD as soon as my ACT score came in. Unfortunately, I was not able to walk on campus the same time as him as he passed away a year before I would have joined him. Despite that setback, I wanted to continue in pursuing higher education in Vermillion, leaving rural northeastern reservation life in hopes of being the first in my family to obtain a degree.

Through the university’s diversity plan, I was able to be a part of the first-year transitioning services. With the help of the Native American Cultural Center (NACC), Trio Services and Wiwokiya Program, students like me moved in a week early, making the adjustment to college life and being away from home a lot easier. As a first-generation college graduate, outside of my dad’s little collegiate experience, this was all new territory for myself and my family. The NACC quickly became my second home as it provided a safe space for all of us who moved in early. Dinners at the NACC became known as family meals. It was a helpful place to study, and most importantly, it became a place to play guitar hero when we needed a mental break from any stress. My advisor recognized my strengths and weaknesses, and through Trio, I can certainly attribute my success in passing my math courses. The Wiwokiya Program set me up with a mentor that was interested in a similar field in hopes of guiding me through academic success. During my first year of college, my mentor provided me with resources, introduced me to other students and helped me feel like I had someone there in time of need. I am still in contact with my mentor, Cori Bazemore, to this day as she continues to support me through graduate school. I owe much of my stability and transitioning success to all three programs. After completing my first year of the mentoring program, I became a mentor myself. I am in high hopes I made as great of an impact on others as Cori did on me. Mentoring first-year Native students was a great experience, and I remain friends with the majority of those mentors and mentees to this day.

After completing a year of mentoring and hanging around the NACC, I was connected with a few gals who introduced me to the rugby team on campus. I was considered an athlete in high school, and it had become difficult for me to play intramural sports on campus, so I wanted something more. The women’s rugby team was a massive sport at the time and became another avenue of stress relief, physical fitness and a way to meet new people. During my senior year of USD, I was voted captain of the squad and found my passion for coaching others which was my minor of study.

As a social work major, Vermillion’s SESDAC Inc. provided me with the best experience in working with a diverse group of people. I knew I was on the right path of work being a part of this organization as helping others is an inherent quality inside me. I am so appreciative for my time with SESDAC as it provided me with an opportunity to work 40 hours a week in a profession I was passionate for, gave me the flexibility to continue doing school full-time, play rugby and continue to build my social and professional relationships. The people I was fortunate to work with taught me many life lessons and helped me more ways than they could imagine.

Lastly, one of the most significant impacts that USD has had on me is the Social Work Department and its staff. When I decided to pursue my undergrad in social work, I knew I found the right program through USD. Social policy, human development, Native family studies and other courses influenced many career choices to follow. Not only were the courses meaningful in my life, but the staff within the program continue to serve as mentors, colleagues and some I am fortunate to consider my friends. My advisor, Debra Norris, and field instructor, Deb Aden, is the epitome of what the University of South Dakota should look for in program instructors. They inspire all those around them and genuinely care for your well-being. Through their guidance and mentoring, I ended my undergrad on the Dean’s list and landed opportunities such as being a part of the 2012 National Child Welfare Workforce Institute (NCWWI) Traineeship.

I will never forget the four years I spent in Vermillion. I hold those memories near and dear to my heart. The people I met, the opportunities I was given and the continued support I receive from professors, colleagues and other alumni of USD are invaluable. As an educator, I only hope the students around me can experience college life and its lessons to the fullest like I was able to do in Vermillion.

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