Student News

Alexandria Johnston named School of Education’s first Dean Smith Scholar

Alexandria Johnston

Alexandria Johnston

The Dean E. Smith Opening Doors Fund

The Dean E. Smith Opening Doors Fund was created to honor the legacy of Carolina’s courageous basketball coach. It’s being used to support Carolina students, including graduate students at the School of Education and the School of Social Work. Learn more about the fund and make a gift to support it.

Carolina’s School Counseling program

The School Counseling program at the School of Education is an intensive 14-month program with a year-long practicum experience. Learn more.

Alexandria Johnston, a student in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education’s school counseling program, has been named the school’s first Dean E. Smith Scholar.

Johnston is the first to receive the scholarship established to honor Dean Smith, Carolina’s head men’s basketball coach for 36 seasons. After Smith died earlier this year his family and the University established the Dean E. Smith Opening Doors Fund to help Carolina undergraduates and graduate students in the School of Education and the School of Social Work.

When he retired in 1997, Smith had led his teams to 879 victories, more than any other NCAA Division I men’s basketball coach at the time. The Dean E. Smith Opening Doors Fund honors Smith’s success on the basketball court, but also his work in pursuit of social justice, in support of public education and in furthering the civil rights movement.

“We are delighted to have named our first Dean Smith Scholar,” said Bill McDiarmid, dean of the School of Education. “Coach Smith stood for making opportunities open to all. While this scholarship honors his achievements beyond the basketball court, the contributions of the students receiving it expands and extends his legacy.”

Scholarship came as ‘a shock’

Johnston, a native of Virginia Beach, Va., joined the Master’s of Education program in school counseling this year. As part of the program, she’s serving in an internship at Cary High School.

Johnston said she didn’t know she had even been nominated for the scholarship.

“It’s still a shock,” she said.

Johnston had taken on loans to cover the out-of-state costs for the program. The $8,000 scholarship offers her great relief, Johnston said.

“I really appreciated being a resource for students who didn’t have a resource. I didn’t realize how much I could be such a help, just me as a person, for someone else.”

“It definitely came at a time when I was becoming overwhelmed with classes and responsibilities,” she said. “And, I’m far from home. It came at the best possible time.

“This award changes everything. It really does.”

Johnston said it was particularly meaningful to win this award given Smith’s life’s work.

“I’ve learned that he was not only the most influential basketball coach, but he also had this idea of giving others opportunities where they could succeed and believing that they would succeed,” she said.

“He and his family and other donors to this fund have given me an opportunity that I would not have had otherwise, and for that I am very, very grateful.”

Getting turned on to school counseling

Johnston became interested in school counseling after working for two years in the College Advising Corps, an initiative of the AmeriCorps program. Johnston worked with students in two high schools in rural Virginia.

She advised students about how to conduct college searches, ran test-preparation courses and helped students fill out financial aid applications. It was her first full-time job.

“A lot of what we were doing was helping generally low-income students find the best college, whether it was a community college or a four-year school,” she said.

Lauren Horne, a school counselor at Chatham High School in Chatham, Va., was Johnston’s supervisor.

“Alex embodies a ‘real world’ approach with her students,” Horne said. “She actively listens and guides while supporting the students' wishes, all while remaining realistic. She was always so approachable. Students sought her out for help with college research, admissions, and financial aid.

“I never had to ask or remind her to complete tasks; they were normally done before I was aware the need even existed,” Horne said.” She will surely make an excellent school counselor and I look forward to hearing about the impact she has on her future students.”

Meghan Walter, coordinator of the School of Education’s school counseling program, said Johnston was an excellent student and was already a leader among her peers.

“Alex has excelled in her internship so far and administration has recognized her as capable of stepping into the role of a professional right away,” Walter said.

Helping someone else

Johnston said school counseling is gratifying work.

She recalled working with one particular low-income student for both years during her College Advising Corps assignment in Virginia. He was a good student with a grade point average of 3.5. No one in his family had been to college, however, and he didn’t know that college could be an option for him, given the low income of his family.

She explained how he could take an SAT preparatory class with her and take the SAT for free by securing a fee waiver.

“He started buying into it a little bit,” she said. “Then, as senior year rolled around, he realized that he was interested in marine biology. We started looking at programs in the state and outside the state.”

At a college visit organized by Johnston, a representative from Old Dominion University, located in Norfolk, Va., had the student fill out an on-site application and he was accepted on the spot, Johnston said.

“From that day forward, I helped him with his financial aid package, interpreting them and helping him apply for aid,” Johnston said. “It was nice watching him go through the process, doing that himself, and giving him the resources to help him figure it out.”

She said it turned out that it was very affordable for him to go to ODU, and pursue study in marine biology.

“It really was the best experience I could have had coming out of undergrad,” Johnston said. “It got me thinking about careers and college access and getting involved in that and how I could do that full time.”

In an internship as part of her master’s program, Johnston now is working as a counselor at Cary High School. She finishes the program in July and plans to work as a school counselor, preferably in a small rural school where the need for her help is greatest.

“I really appreciated being a resource for students who didn’t have a resource,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much I could be such a help, just me as a person, for someone else.”