Julianna Johnson, an AARP Foundation Women’s Scholarship winner in 2009 and 2010, is in her senior year in the prestigious School of Design at Rochester Institute for Technology’s (RIT). She aced every class since she transfered to RIT in September 2009 and recently won the RIT Outstanding Undergraduate Scholar Award. Her work is colorful, imaginative and polished – words that describe Juliana, 48, herself.
In early 2005, however, the picture wasn't so pretty. Julianna was living on the streets of Los Angeles, addicted to crystal meth. When she was picked up on drug-related charges and sent to the to the L.A. County jail, "that was my bottom," she says. "Going to jail was the worst experience of my life, but it was also a blessing in disguise — it showed me what I needed to do." She got sober and, when she was released three months later, had a job and a place to live waiting for her.
To escape the insane—– but real — temptations of the L.A. drug scene, Julianna moved to a small Wisconsin town and started a new job. Life was good, until what she thought was a weird flu sent her to the doctor. She was devastated to learn she had Hepatitis C, a viral liver disease. After six months of grueling treatment, she was cured. "It is a miracle," she says.
Her older sister, who lives in Ithaca, N.Y., stepped in. "This is your second chance at life," she said. "What are your dreams?" Julianna didn't hesitate. "I want to go back to college and study art," she said. She moved in with her sister, enrolled in a community college, and began to study graphic design. Two years later, she had her associate's degree — and straight A's.
After reviewing her now considerable portfolio, RIT's design school offered her a place in its September 2009 junior class. She was elated, but there was one glitch: paying for it. In 2008, she had made the finals in the AARP Foundation Women's Scholarship competition, and the program had encouraged her to apply again. She did.
When she read the letter telling her she'd won this time, she was ecstatic — and amazed. "I wasn't sure if my story was something that people would want to support. I'm so grateful that AARP Foundation saw past any social stigma put on drug addiction, that it could see that we are still people, we still have dreams, and we can climb out of this," she says.
Reaching out to help other addicted women recover, Julianna recently won RIT's Bruce R. James Distinguished Public Service Award for her work with the homeless, addicts and shelters in the Rochester area.
To other older women thinking about college, Julianna says, "Do it now! Don't fear that you're not going to measure up. Older, nontraditional students are the best students. We've learned discipline just through our life experiences."
After she graduates in June 2011, Julianna is off to France on another scholarship, where she will study under designer Armando Milani. In the meantime, design school and sobriety have taught her to see the world with different eyes. "A light went on and a whole new world opened up to me," she says. "Thank you, AARP and the Walmart Foundation, for helping make this happen."