Being chosen as a Fulbright scholar is one of the most prestigious — and highly competitive — honors that a student can receive. So when Emmanuel Johnson received the news in spring 2013, he was totally taken aback. Then a computer engineering undergraduate at North Carolina A&T State University, he was driving to campus and was stopped at a red light, when his phone vibrated. It was an e-mail from the Fulbright program.

“Oh, ugh, let’s see what happened,” thought Johnson, pessimistically.
When he saw the word, “Congratulations,” his mouth dropped open.
“I drove to the College of Engineering parking lot and kept driving around in circles,” he remembers.

Johnson, 23, is A&T’s first student Fulbright awardee. He admits that being selected last year for one of the most elite awards in the world is probably even more amazing when one considers his past as lackluster student.

“Believe it or not, at one time, my ambition was to be a big-time drug dealer,” he says.

Johnson is a first-generation college student. His family fled to the U.S. when he was eight, escaping the violence of Liberia’s civil war. He moved from city to city, living with different relatives then, finally, the aunt and uncle who helped raise him.

“I had to grow up quickly and learn to take care of myself,” says Johnson, who in those days was the class clown frequenting the suspension room. The big change came during his senior year at New Brunswick High School in New Jersey.
“Watching my friends sell drugs and gangbang, I began to realize I didn’t want to live
that life,” he says. “As I began to search for a better life, I realized it was a possibility.”

In contrast to his 2.9 high school GPA, Johnson earned a 4.0 during his first semester at A&T. He had a new attitude and dedication, waking up at 5 a.m. to study, and clocking 21-hour days. He developed a supportive network of dedicated fellow students and sought tutors for almost every class, to give himself more time to review materials and reinforce his knowledge even more.

He also developed his leadership skills through NSBE, serving as Region II Academic Excellence chair. In that position, he supported the efforts of numerous chapters to heighten their members’ academic performance.

“NSBE has played a huge role in my studies and endeavours,” he says.

 

Meanwhile, Johnson found himself drawn more and more to robotics, especially how human and robots interact. He landed undergraduate research assistant opportunities at top technical institutions, including the University of Michigan and Carnegie Mellon University, and earned his Bachelor of Science degree at A&T in May of last year.

During his current Fulbright tenure at the University of Birmingham, in England, he is focused on developing a robot tutor for young students.

“More generally, I would like to use robots to address the educational needs of students, especially those in underprivileged communities,” says Johnson. In the meantime, he’s making small cultural adjustments — such as getting used to the British accent and vernacular — and becoming accustomed to crossing the street in the U.K., where cars are driven on the left side of the road.

Johnson is proud of being a Fulbright scholar but perhaps more proud of turning his life around.

“The biggest thing I want people to understand is that anything is possible,” he says, “if you are willing and ready to make it happen.”

During his current Fulbright tenure at the University of Birmingham, in England, Johnson is focused on developing a robot tutor for young students.