When Dr. Melencia Johnson came to Aiken eight years ago to teach sociology and criminal justice at USC Aiken, her first question was: What am I going to do?

Her question has been answered many times over with her service and involvement with the NAACP; the Center for African American History, Art and Culture; and the Aiken Chapter of The Links, Incorporated, in addition to teaching and international travel with her students at USCA.

“I have been serving since I don't know how long,” Johnson said. “It's kind of engrained in me to be of service, so when I first got to Aiken in 2012. I was, like, I have to get involved.”

Reaching out to the Aiken Young Professionals, Johnson worked 5K road races with Habitat for Humanity and found her niche with the NAACP and the Aiken Downtown Development Association.

“Those two organizations really got me involved in different facets of the community,” Johnson said. “From there, I was able to find some of my passions: working with and mentoring youth; voter registration and education; and with ADDA, just being out and being social and welcoming people to Aiken at many of the festivals.

It makes her happy to help people feel welcome and feel good. "... So I serve a lot,” she said.

Johnson joined the NAACP in college and is now first vice president of the Aiken County branch – a leadership role she wasn't expecting quite so soon.

“When they asked don't you want to run for office, I said, sure, I can be someone's assistant, and they said how about first vice president,” Johnson said. “I said how about second, but no one ran for first. So by default, I was first vice president. It's been exciting, though, because I've been able to learn a lot.”

Johnson was selected for the first cohort of the NAACP Next Generation Program, a 12-month leadership training program for young adults between 21 and 35 to be trained to assume leadership in the NAACP.

Over the year, through webinars, in-person workshops and an invitation to the NAACP national convention, Johnson learned about the organization from its inception in 1909 to the present.

“We were immersed in NAACP culture and the organizational structure,” Johnson said. “They gave us the tools to be successful in our own branches, and I brought a lot of that work back to our branch.

“That's been one of the most amazing opportunities. A lot of the voter registration training I had we used and implemented throughout the summer last year to get ready for the 2018 elections.”

The Next Generation Program also provided professional development Johnson uses at the Center for African American History, Art and Culture and at USCA.

“It's opened a lot of doors, and I've gained experience,” she said.

Johnson joined the Board of Directors of the Center for African American History, Art and Culture in March 2018 and, since then, has worked to build its presence on social media and on the Web.

“I take care of a lot of the technology,” Johnson said.

Earlier in June, Johnson chaired the center's observation of Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating African American culture and the day that slavery was abolished in Texas in 1865.

In addition to preserving African American history, art and culture, the organization's mission is to preserve the center's historic building on the northeast corner of York Street and Richland Avenue, Johnson said.

The Rev. W.R. Coles, an African American Presbyterian missionary, built the Immanuel Institute in 1889 as a school for the children of freed enslaved blacks.

“Before we even put anything on the walls, the building itself is what is historical and amazing,” Johnson said.

With its focus on education, the center's restored building will return to its roots, Johnson said.

“It's important because we're really missing that here in Aiken. Regionally, places to see African American history are more than an hour away,” she continued. “We don't have a museum that really centers on African American history. Of course, we have the Aiken County Historical Museum, which does a great job of telling some of the stories of local African American history, but I think it's great to have a museum just dedicated to African American art, history and culture.”

Especially for school children, Johnson said.

In June 2018, Johnson joined the Aiken Chapter of the Links, Incorporated, a service organization that focuses on the arts, youth and education, health and human services, and international and national trends in service.

Through its members and sponsors, The Links, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this month, awards thousands of dollars in scholarships annually to graduating high school seniors in Aiken and surrounding counties.

Johnson emceed the recent Senior Recognition Day; coordinates the Links' social media presence – “They found out I was pretty good at technology,” she said; and works with FACETS, a mentoring group at Schofield Middle School.

“It's about positivity and positive body image, but also education – telling young women that they are jewels, too, like the facets of a diamond and making sure they they know it,” Johnson said. “One of my other Links sisters and I did a presentation on eating right. I'm a vegetarian and explained vegetarianism to them. Most of them couldn't believe that I don't eat meat. That was the most amazing thing. It was fun interacting with them.”

Johnson integrates her community involvement into her sociology and criminal justice classes at USCA and gives her students opportunities to develop their own traditions of service.

Through her work with ADDA and the City of Aiken's Safe Communities initiative to engage and educate recurring offenders to change their behavior and make healthy life choices, Johnson got to know officers, sergeants and lieutenants at Aiken Public Safety.

Now, she invites those officers – and representatives from Juvenile Justice and the probation office – to her classes to talk to her students.

“It gives my students real-life experiences and lets them figure out if that's what they really want to do,” Johnson said. “That's been exciting – to see students' eyes brighten up when they see someone doing the job they might want to do when they grow up.”

Johnson also takes her students to Clemson University’s Youth Development Center at Camp Long, a program for at-risk youth ages 12-17.

“That's been a great opportunity for my students and the girls there, getting them involved, being of service, talking to the youth and mentoring them,” Johnson said.

Johnson's service to USCA and her community helped her recently earn tenure and a promotion from assistant professor to associate professor.

Dr. Mark Hollingsworth, the dean of USCA's College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences called Johnson "an outstanding professor who takes her teaching as well as the welfare of her students very seriously."

"She has been an integral part of making the Pacer Pathway Program a success by teaching sociology classes for the program," he said. "Well respected by students and her colleagues, she serves on university committees and assists with several student organizations."

Growing up in Lynchburg, Virginia, with her mom, Shirley, who works at BWX Technologies; her dad, Mike, an electrician; and her brother, Jerome, who recently graduated from the Fire Academy, Johnson never thought about being a college professor.

First, she wanted to be a PE teacher “because my PE teacher was so much fun, but my Mom said no,” Johnson said.

Then she wanted to be a doctor.

“When that show 'ER' came out, I watched it religiously,” Johnson said.

Then, she wanted to be a lawyer.

“I watched 'New York Undercover' and thought that would be cool,” Johnson said.

Next, she wanted to be a profiler for the FBI.

“I watched all the 'CSI' shows,” Johnson said.

But to be a CSI, Johnson realized “you have to be pretty good at science, and I didn't want to take all of those science courses,” she said.

Johnson also thought about becoming a probation officer.

“I was interested in youth and youth crimes. That's probably why I teach juvenile and girls delinquency courses now,” she said.

Johnson found her calling as an educator while an undergraduate at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Virginia, where she was a first-generation college student. She also was a cheerleader and played tennis at the university.

Her mentor recommended her for the Ronald McNair Scholarship program at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. An astronaut and South Carolina native, McNair was killed when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in January 1986.

“The purpose was to educate young people, young minorities, women and underserved minorities to be teachers of other people of color and underserved minorities,” Johnson said. “The idea was to get you to get your Ph.D.”

During two summers in the program, Johnson found her research interests. She earned her doctorate from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, studying sociology, criminology and women's studies.

After graduate school, Johnson interviewed with the Secret Service, but then offers for professor jobs came knocking.

Johnson taught at Paine College in Augusta for a few years and came to USCA in 2012.

“I'm happy. Now. I'm teaching other students who want to be CSIs – until they realize they have to take science classes,” Johnson said and laughed.

Outside the classroom and her service, Johnson is a traveler and loves to travel solo, having visited Thailand and Australia by herself.

“I've given my Mom a few gray hairs, but it's so fun,” she said. “I've had some kind of wild and a few scary experiences here and there, but most of the time, you find a group in a hostel that's going to do something you want to do, and you jump on board and share a cab and make some friends. I feel really comfortable doing that.”

For two years, Johnson has shared her love of travel, escorting USCA students on trips to India.

“That's been the most amazing experience to see first-time travelers learn how to travel, getting their bearings in an airport, learning about different cultures, putting their minds to a new cultural experience,” she said. “I'm thinking I'm going to do a lot more of that at USC Aiken, but maybe as a pet project somewhere down the line, I can work with a program helping youth travel the world.”

Larry Wood covers education for the Aiken Standard.

A native of Aiken, Larry Wood covers education for the Aiken Standard.