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Multifaceted Nursing Career Brings
Alumna Portia Johnson Back to Classroom


West Windsor, N.J. - For alumna Portia Johnson '79 (A.S., Nursing), B.S.N., M.S.N., Ed.D., the mentoring she received at Mercer County Community College was the first step to where she is today more than 30 years later - a member of the nursing faculty at Seton Hall University.

So, when the proud MCCC alumna received the Nurse Educator Award from the Northern New Jersey Black Nurses Association at an honorary luncheon in November, she chose to invite two of the people who guided her on her road to success: Professor Emeritii Margaret Fink and HelenMarie Dolton. (Dolton established Mercer's Nursing Program and served as chairperson of the Division of Nursing and Allied Health.)

According to Johnson, young people need mentoring and guidance as they start their careers, and that's exactly what she got as a Mercer student. She had decided on a career in health care directly after high school, earning her LPN certification at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia in 1970. But she dreamed of taking her career to the next level and believed Mercer was the place to make it happen.

She recalls her initial interview with Dolton, then chair of the Nursing Division, who accepted Johnson into MCCC's nursing program with a wait-and-see attitude. "I was an average student in high school, but Miss Dolton took a chance on me," Johnson says.

"I knew this was my opportunity. I felt pressure to succeed. My parents were pushing me. My church was pushing me," she recalls.

"My Mercer education was solid. I studied hard. I set aside everything else. It was time consuming, but worth it. I consider 1979 - the year I graduated from Mercer - as the real beginning of my professional nursing career."

Nursing alum Portia Johnson '79, center, proudly displays the Nurse Educator Award from the Northern NJ Black Nurses Association. She is pictured with HelenMarie Dolton, MCCC's former Dean of the Division of Science and Allied Health , left, and Professor Emerita Margaret Fink. The three recently got together at Dolton's house to talk about the nursing field and reminisce about their days together at Mercer.
Now colleagues, Johnson called upon Margaret Fink, her former MCCC professor, to serve as her mentor in her first years of teaching at Seton Hall University.

Johnson also remembers that Professor Fink, an alumna of William Patterson University (WPU), advised her to continue for her bachelor's degree. "And Miss Fink told me, 'If you have problems, you let me know,'" Johnson says. She took Fink's advice, earning her B.S.N. from WPU in 1982.

Johnson says both Fink and Dolton were always in her corner. "They were two people you remember. They were always there for me." She notes that she pays tribute to them in practically every class she teaches at Seton Hall. "They wanted me to get it right and to succeed."

Johnson notes that she is trying to fulfill that same role for her students. "I know it's not easy. I try to take my experience and put myself in their place. What can I do to improve their experience and benefit their learning?"

Well aware of the challenges students face today, Johnson says there is no substitute for hard work. "When you are in college, you must sacrifice. Sometimes that means missing a party, but the parties will be there when you graduate," she tells her classes.

Johnson's own professional nursing career began in the typical way as a medical/surgical nurse at Passaic General Hospital and then at OMNI Health Care Services, where she gained important hands-on skills and meaningful connections with patients. Then she decided to leave floor nursing to apply her skills first in the post-anesthesia recovery room as a staff nurse and then as a research teaching specialist in the University of Medicine and Dentistry Dental School in Newark.

In 1989, Johnson moved to the corporate sector to work as a senior drug safety services associate at Roche Inc. (formerly Hoffmann-LaRoche), a leading international research-focused healthcare group with offices in Nutley, NJ. There she used her nursing background to track and report adverse events to the Food and Drug Administration.

Through Roche's tuition assistance program, Johnson was able to earn her master's degree in Nursing from Hunter College, CUNY, in 1992. She also re-entered the classroom as a part-time instructor, teaching courses in medical terminology and anatomy/physiology at Gibbs College in Livingston.

Increasingly drawn to teaching, she earned her Ed.D. at Teachers College of Columbia University in 2004, and began testing the waters as an adjunct professor at Bloomfield College. Then, when an opening came up at Seton Hall University, Johnson applied and began in a tenure track position in 2007.

"I really like teaching. I have knowledge to impart," she says with conviction. When it was time for Johnson to select a mentor as required for a new professor, she called on her former professor, Margaret Fink.

At Seton Hall, Johnson teaches Introduction to Professional Nursing and Health Promotion, and in the clinical lab, where students learn the foundation for completing health assessments and taking vital signs. She has also taught in the Seton Hall University College of Nursing's RN-to-BSN program.

Johnson remains committed to connecting with students. "Someone needs to help you identify your strengths and provide direction. But it's a two-way street. The student has to reach out too. My office is always open."

She offers her students practical advice in the face of today's economy. "I tell students to get to know the floor nurses during their clinical rotations. Volunteer. Be the one to stand out. Chances are those nurses will still be there when you graduate and are looking for a job."

Johnson stresses that students should prepare for opportunities that come their way. "You just don't know where a nursing career will take you, but you must put yourself out there and be ready.

"I exceeded my personal expectations," she admits. And she reflects with satisfaction on her parents' pride in her accomplishments. With neither parent having attended college, each step for Johnson was a step for them. "My father was a champion for education. And my mom lived long enough to see me earn my masters and my doctorate," she says proudly.

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