Joseph Johnson, a former NFL player and assistant director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Boston University’s Goldman School of Dental Medicine, highlighted the importance of perseverance and mental health in career development during the annual Men of Color Conference.
“You can’t do the thing that you do just because someone else told you to do it,” Johnson said. “Let others tell you their story of how they got here, and let that story be their story. Don’t tell other people’s stories—tell your own story and allow others to experience that story with you.”
The Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center held the 2023 Men of Color Conference in Gasson Hall on Saturday, offering a full day of networking, self-exploration, and a lineup of speeches about uplifting BC’s community of AHANA men.
Johnson began his keynote speech with the story of his non-traditional path to success, sharing that he did not get a lot of attention growing up as one of six children.
“But the education system also wasn’t really addressing me as a Black man,” Johnson said. “When you see statistical data about suspension rates and students dropping out, I was on that path, because no one asked me why I was not doing what is best for me.”
As a result, Johnson fully committed himself to athletics. Johnson said, however, that his past lack of academic engagement caused him to struggle in college, plaguing him with doubts that he eventually overcame through his desire to defy societal expectations and succeed.
“The thing I relied on most was my own self-desire,” Johnson said. “I was not going to go back to New Jersey if I failed despite all of these opportunities, because I think that’s what people expected.”
While playing for the Chicago Bears, Johnson said he had to recover for a year after tearing his Achilles tendon. When reflecting on his hopes for the future during this period, Johnson said he ultimately decided to prioritize his education over athletics.
“Once I finished my training, I told myself I needed to go back and be an athlete,” Johnson said. “Even though I didn’t want to, I had to accomplish this because I needed to show people that I can be successful. But I also said that I had to go back to school, so I started taking classes again.”
Johnson said that he fell out of love with football soon after, leading him to finish his undergraduate degree at UNC Wilmington in exercise physiology. Aiming to support Black male students, he then went on to teach physical education to children.
“When I started examining why aren’t Black males pursuing degrees, it’s because there’s no sense of support,” Johnson said. “So I spent the rest of my career pursuing and supporting students along that path.”
Johnson concluded by encouraging students to evaluate the true motivations behind pursuing their life goals.
“Understanding your ‘why’ will always guide how you move in this world,” Johnson said. “As you’re finishing your degrees at Boston College, think about the next step, and why you are taking this next step. Think ‘Why am I here, and why am I choosing the things that I’m doing?’ and you will never fail yourself.”
Jonathan Rosenthal, the assistant director of career education at the BC Career Center, then hosted an interactive workshop with students. He shared six key tips for success and good mental health, including keeping a disciplined routine and prioritizing physical health.
“My mantra is simple: win the day,” Rosenthal said. “It’s about stacking many wins throughout the day, many successes … If I win today, I’m going to try and win tomorrow. And if I win tomorrow, I got a little winning streak.”
Rosenthal’s workshop was followed by a panel of professionals, including E. Peter Alvarez, senior vice president at Atlantic Global Risk and BC ’06, and Leonard “Keno” Brown, a Connell School of Nursing graduate and current Woods College of Advancing Studies student.
“Fear is a big reason for why I didn’t embrace networking with other people,” Brown said. “Embrace that discomfort, because that’s how you’re going to be able to elevate yourself. A lot of us get locked into similarities and people that are like us. And if you just stay in that box, you’re not going to experience the world.”
Alvarez further emphasized the usefulness of having a strong network and the importance of forming one early.
“Networking should be about building good, solid relationships and not networking with people just trying to network for network’s sake,” Alvarez said. “Try and have a purpose around it, and the purpose should be laying the foundation for something you need in the future.”
Kenny Francis, assistant director for student-athlete formation and success at BC, ended the conference by urging the audience to embrace the benefits that come with financial security but to also remember the importance of moral values.
“Take a step back and think about your morals and values because, ultimately, that is what guides you when it comes to your critical decision-making,” Francis said. “Think about your family situation and the neighborhood you’re coming from—what do they need you to be? Because, essentially, that’s the purpose you’re going to fulfill when you leave BC.”