Sisc Johnson, a George Mason University School of Art student and staff member, will be the first in her family to graduate from college this May.
“My parents never graduated high school,” said Johnson. “[My siblings and I] were in and out of foster homes, and we were always raised to believe that college wasn't an option for us. It wasn’t until I started working at Mason, that I discovered I actually could go to college.”
Johnson, who started at Mason as the business manager of Student Centers in 2008, began taking nondegree classes. Her determination to earn a degree, coupled with her discovery of Mason’s employee tuition benefit, led her to enroll in the BFA in photography with Art and Visual Technology (AVT) program in 2018.
“I originally went into the interdisciplinary studies degree program and one of my first classes was a photography class, with Sue Wrbican. She was amazing and it completely changed my trajectory,” Johnson said.
Johnson was very active in the Writing for Artists course during the pandemic, said course instructor Heather Green.
“Sissy was great because when we were all doing class from our houses, it could be a little bit demoralizing, but she would always bring her unique perspective, her insights and humor, and kick off the conversation,” said Green, an assistant professor in Mason’s School of Art.
Although her parents never finished high school, Johnson understood the value of a degree and encouraged her two daughters to go to college, and both earned degrees—at Lewis and Clark College and University of Virginia—as their mother pursued hers part-time while working full-time.
“We’re so lucky to have Sisc, one of our most dynamic students, bringing her business experience and art knowledge to her new position in School of Art,” Green said.
Johnson, who also teaches photography at Stepping Stones, a treatment program for court-involved boys, age 14 to 18, often incorporates social justice into her artwork.
“Every year I take cameras over there and teach art as a way of expressing what's going on and expose them to Mason. Hopefully they [will see that they] can go to college too."
Her projects on the prison systems and prison reform are inspired by loved ones who are in and out of incarceration, said Johnson, similar to how her projects on women’s rights tie back to her personal experience of being a woman who grew up in the foster care system of rural Tennessee and dealing with many gender inequalities.
Johnson, who now works for the School of Art as the business and operations manager, has several projects featured on her personal portfolio website.
“I don't like talking about my experiences very much, so I focus on others,” she explained. “One of my last projects ‘Lost in America’ was about undocumented members of our community and the abuses that they suffer.
“I've been at 7-Eleven photographing them, and somebody will drive up in a truck that says ‘Build the wall’ on the bumper. Those things really enrage me.”
Bobby Yi, assistant director at the School of Art and the interim director for painting and drawing, has been Johnsons’ academic adviser throughout her career.
“Sissy is pretty freaking amazing,” Yi said. “That challenge of having to juggle so much is humongous, and it speaks volumes about her personality and what she's willing to give for her family and for other students.”
“There's been so many times that my peers at Mason all show up for me when I need them, and they all motivate me,” said Johnson.
“One thing about Mason is that everybody has an opportunity to make their dreams come true here, and Sissy is the embodiment of that,” Yi said. “She deserves all the accolades that she could get.”
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