Johnson extending a proud family legacy
September 23, 2021
Author: Cal Powell  | 706-542-6402  | More about Cal

Discontent in her full-time job as a corporate analyst, Portia Johnson found satisfaction moonlighting as a real estate agent.

Working with clients, especially helping educate first-time home buyers, gave Johnson a renewed sense of purpose – until a conversation with a broker inspired an awakening and eventually a new career path.

“She asked me what I enjoyed the most about working with clients, and I told her about helping them understand the process and having them feel confident about their mortgage decisions and all these things,” Johnson said, laughing at the memory. “And she said ‘Honey, that’s not our job. Our job is to sell homes.’ She said if you’re more interested in people than profit, you’re in the wrong business.”

The conversation was a factor in Johnson’s decision to leave her corporate job and pursue a doctorate in housing management and policy in FACS “to help people make solid decisions rather than help companies get rich.”

“I knew I wanted to teach people at a high level, and a Ph.D. was a path to do that,” she said. “That conversation just nudged me to stop compromising and completely leave both the corporate consumer packaged goods world and real estate work and start that Ph.D. journey sooner rather than later, so that I can do work I can be proud of sooner rather than later.”

Another factor in the Atlanta native’s decision to return to UGA for her doctorate – she received an undergraduate degree in English in 2007 – was the work of the late Karen Tinsley, a FACS faculty member who oversaw the Georgia Initiative on Community Housing program.

Tinsley was killed in April 2018 after being hit by a truck while riding her bicycle, one month after Johnson was accepted into the program.

“I really fell in love with a lot of the articles I was reading by Dr. Tinsley, specifically the work she was doing with cities and helping people benefit from a lot of funding from (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development),” Johnson said. “I really came here because I was hopeful to work with her.”

Johnson persevered with the support of her family and a close network of previous doctoral students who encouraged her.

“When I came I was completely lost,” she said. “They reached back and grabbed me and I was just holding on for dear life.”

Continuing a legacy

While she comes from a long line of educators, Johnson will be the first college professor in her family. She defended her dissertation in July and accepted a position as Extension specialist and assistant professor at Auburn.

The significance of the milestone still brings tears to Johnson’s eyes as she reflects on the life of her chief inspiration, her late grandmother, who helped integrate the Atlanta public schools.

The family’s legal pursuit of the opportunity for an education yielded death threats against Johnson’s great-grandfather, but also sparked a passion for learning that has endured all these generations.

“They went through a lot,” she said, “but one thing they did was they were resilient. They didn’t give up. It’s not really pressure to be a part of that legacy. It’s a privilege.”

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