Retired UNI Upward Bound director reflects on a lifetime of inspiration

Growing up in a tight-knit neighborhood community in Waterloo, Wilfred “Mickye” Johnson learned the importance of helping your neighbor. Johnson has 12 siblings, and his parents often struggled to make ends meet. But his community’s generosity helped his family thrive and instilled values in Johnson that guide him even today.

“Everybody uses the phrase, ‘It takes a village…’ and we truly had a village that raised all of us,” Johnson recalled. “We would share everything we had. ... We knew we were loved by our family and by the total community.”

This commitment to community became his life’s work. Johnson was the director of UNI’s Classic Upward Bound program for 33 years, a role he used to empower youth throughout the Cedar Valley to better their lives through education. He retired earlier this month, leaving a legacy that will make an impact for years to come. It all started with the values he learned in his youth.

“My father pushed all of us to get a quality education. Education is probably the greatest equalizer in our society,” he said. “If you have the education or degrees behind you, it opens up so many doors for you. I wanted to open up doors for myself but also use my education to demystify education for other people.”

An education

Johnson’s passion for education led him to UNI first as a student. He was drawn to the strength of UNI’s faculty and especially to the campus’ commitment to diversity.

“I wanted to study under some of the faculty members at UNI. UNI had a plan in place to increase diversity and there were several African American faculty members that were very supportive,” he said. “It was important for me to have faculty who could show me the ropes and show me how to navigate a predominately white campus.”

He graduated from UNI in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and eventually got a job with John Deere. Then in 1988, after a national farming crisis that dragged on for years, he resigned and planned to move to Atlanta after accepting a job offer that promised more stability. But destiny came calling — Johnson was offered a job with UNI’s Upward Bound, a pre-college preparatory program designed to help low-income and first-generation college students succeed in school. The job was the perfect fit.

“Coming into the Upward Bound program with a mission to serve, that was a part of who I am,” he said. “My family has always given back to the community, so I fell in love with the mission of helping others.”

Johnson’s experience, compassion and willingness to stand up for his charges made him a powerful advocate.

"I was looking for … someone who participants could look to for guidance and support; someone who would not be afraid to speak out against injustice and inequality in our society and higher education,” said Inez Murtha, who was director of the program and hired Johnson in 1988. “More importantly, I was looking for someone who cared enough to make a difference."

Johnson was hired as an academic counselor for the program and was promoted to assistant director in just four years. Two years later, he took over as director. Through his work with Upward Bound, Johnson was able to help empower others — like Waterloo native Azline Nelson, who became involved with the program in high school after seeing her sisters find success through their participation. 

The program helped her get her bachelor’s in International Relations from Spelman College, before going on to do internships for Viacom and Google. She eventually landed a job with Delta Airlines in Atlanta, where she worked for seven years. In June, she’ll begin pursuing her MBA at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Nelson said Johnson was a source of support for her throughout.

“Mickye is definitely someone I’m grateful to have in my village. Through the years, he’s really transformed into kind of a life coach,” said Nelson. “Mickye wrote letters of recommendation for me to get into the Wharton School. Without his advocacy and support I certainly would not be where I am.”

His role with Upward Bound had a personal impact, too. He went on to get a master’s degree and, with the encouragement of mentors and colleagues, a doctorate degree in education from UNI.

“I had some great faculty members push me to go on and get my doctorate,” he said. “I realized that if I was going to push my students to go on and achieve the highest degree that they wanted, then I needed to have that, too.”

Making changes

After taking the reins at Upward Bound, Johnson soon met his first challenge. New federal funding regulations had left the program  struggling financially, but Johnson had to find a way to make  the program sustainable.

“I realized that in order to offer the students the best that we had to give, I had to go out and build partnership,” he said. “That allowed us to meet the needs of our students. When you meet the greatest needs, then you can change lives.”

Johnson put his passion for community and his networking skills to work, securing funding from a number of community supporters, including former employer John Deere and the R.J. McElroy Trust. The program flourished, growing to address the community’s changing needs.

One new program included a monthly training on financial aid for students and parents. Other changes included transforming the  annual end-of-year trip into an opportunity for students to start envisioning their future.

“I changed the trip to be academically based, because I wanted it to be more enriching,” said Johnson. “We’d go visit colleges and look at places that would enhance their ability to dream. I wanted them to learn more about who they are and who they could be.”

These trips were one of students’ favorite parts of the program. Keyah Levy, associate director for Diversity, Inclusion & Social Justice at UNI, fondly remembers her time in the program. She credits Johnson with much of her success, including a master's in community health education/health promotion from UNI and her recent acceptance into a doctoral program at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, which she will begin this May.

“He has provided guidance to me both personally and professionally, and is a key influencer in my passion for continued education,” Levy said.

A lasting impact

Johnson’s impact transcends his job description. He influenced change across campus and throughout the Cedar Valley community. 

“The impact will continue long after Mickye's lifetime," said Murtha. "The return on one successful student, in most cases, results in a change in the socio-economic status of the student, which is a winning situation not only for the participant, but also for their family, community and country."

But Johnson also went above and beyond, building relationships with colleagues across campus. One of them was Robert Smith, director of UNI’s Center for Urban Education (UNI-CUE), which houses Upward Bound. Smith was hired as a recruiter for the UNI-CUE’s Education Opportunity Center a few months after Johnson first joined Upward Bound. They grew together professionally over the years, as each moved up to new positions in UNI and in the community. Smith, a former Black Hawk county supervisor,  says Johnson was instrumental in helping him during his runs for public office.

“Mickye grew up in this community and people trusted him. That was huge early in my career,” said Smith. “He really helped me gain credibility with community members in this town. I was able to have a great deal of success and a lot of that I would have to attribute to my relationship with Mickye Johnson.”

Johnson also helped remind Smith to stay focused on their shared values.

“The thing I would say stands out the most with Mickye is that he never compromised. He never lost sight of the fact that we are here to help first generation students and low-income families,” said Smith. “I feel like I have a moral responsibility to be sure I don't lose sight of what I need to be doing.”

That mission is what Johnson will remember most about his job, and what he hopes will be the impact he leaves on campus.

“The biggest joy of working for the university is knowing that our program is very diverse. We don't just talk about it, we act it,” he said. “What I want to leave as a legacy for the program is to have all these different cultures come together and realize that greatness comes from all walks of life.”

Robert Welch, former director of advising for UNI’s college of education, took over Johnson’s role on April 20. Though Johnson’s time as an employee is over, he still plans to play an active role in the campus and Cedar Valley communities.

“I didn't attain all of this knowledge and these degrees to not give back to the community,” he said. "I plan to continue to serve the Cedar Valley as long as I live here.”