Kashi Johnson, ’93, an acting professor in Lehigh’s department of theatre, served as the keynote speaker for the class of 2022’s convocation on Aug. 26. Johnson spoke with The Brown and White about her time at Lehigh, both as an undergraduate student and professor, describing how her educational plans as an undergraduate changed and how she returned to her alma mater to be a professor.
Q: What did you originally intend to study at Lehigh and when did you realize you wanted to study something else?
Kashi Johnson: I came into the school of engineering and thought of being a computer science engineer. That’s because I went to a math and science high school, so I was headed very much on that track. I realized I wanted to do something different, probably after I took a (calculus) class and a (chemistry) class, which didn’t go well for me. I realized that I wasn’t in the right place. I didn’t get help, or drop classes or withdraw when I could have. I just stuck it out and made a mess of my GPA in the process.
Q: In your convocation speech, you mentioned an influential exchange with your mom about your major. What did she say?
KJ: I will never forget the time my mom and I spent pouring over my transcripts, ahead of junior year. I had given up trying to figure it out on my own, so I finally threw myself at my mom’s feet. She said, “Well what about this acting class? You got an A in that so why don’t you do that?” And I said, “I’m not going to go to Lehigh to be an actor. What will people say?” I always say that besides giving birth to me, that was the biggest gift (my mom) gave me — the permission to find my joy. I started to imagine doing what I actually might enjoy doing and everything changed.
Q: After graduating from Lehigh and getting your masters degree, how did you eventually find your way back?
KJ: In graduate school, you can pursue acting in different ways. You can go to LA and New York, some try their hand professionally, some study, and learn and train. I wanted to do the third option. I got a scholarship to pursue my master of fine arts at the University of Pittsburgh, which also allowed me to teach courses. It was great because it provided me with the skill set of a beginning acting teacher. When I graduated, I had built a strong network in the city of Pittsburgh through my involvement in the acting community. About one year after I got my master of fine arts, I was talking to Pam Pepper, my Lehigh theater connection, who mentioned they had a spot for a visiting artist to come and teach a few classes and play Mama in the production of “A Raisin in the Sun”. I accepted the offer and came in the spring of ’99. During the following year, there was a national search for a position at Lehigh and I decided to go for it. I joined the faculty when I was 28 and have been here ever since.
Q: How did your experience as a Lehigh student make you want to become a professor here?
KJ: I figured that here is as good as anywhere else, and if anything, I know this place a little bit better. I love the work, I love my colleagues in my department and I’m able to do the work that I do. I could do these things anywhere, but I chose to do them here because of my special connection and because Lehigh showed me the hard side of the mountain and it showed me the smooth side. I know it’s not always easy, but I serve as a living testament to the good and the bad. I find the meaning in showing up every day here and being able to do what I love.