Dream Big: A sociology graduate's journey from a dark past to UC Berkeley and Harvard

May 15, 2024

Ten years ago, Johnny Smith sat in a prison cell with no hope and no future. And that’s when he decided to dream big and "reinvent" himself. 

The UC Berkeley Sociology senior’s long and arduous journey from drug abuse to homelessness, to incarceration, and eventually, to Cal is a tale of tragedy and triumph. Overcoming impossible odds, Johnny, who is a first-generation college student, graduated this week with the highest honor awarded to a graduating undergraduate sociology student, the Sociology Departmental Citation, placing him top of his class this year. He will be matriculating to Harvard University in the fall to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology, having received a full scholarship.

Along the way, a strong support network of classmates, faculty and peer mentors at Cal helped him achieve academic success and redemption. 

"Johnny's trajectory is both inspiring and instructive. It shows that there's great potential in every student. And it shows what someone with determination can do when given the opportunity to participate in education that speaks to lived experience and is supported by a community of like-minded scholars,” Berkeley Sociology Chair Dave Harding said. “Congratulations to Johnny for all that he has accomplished, and for all that he will accomplish in the sociological career ahead of him."

Johnny spoke to Berkeley Social Sciences recently about his difficult journey, experiences at UC Berkeley and plans for the future. The interview is edited for clarity.  

Tell us more about your background and how you got to UC Berkeley
Johnny Smith: I grew up in an unstable household where education wasn’t valued. Instead, I was exposed to substance use and gang violence, which were the values modeled in my home. We were evicted a lot and moved around so much that I don’t remember how many primary schools I attended as a child. The consequence was it disrupted my socialization process, and I absolutely hated school. I began using substances at 11 years old, and by the 8th grade, I made the decision to drop out of school. 

My proclivity for substances inevitably evolved into addiction as I entered adulthood, and I eventually got swept up in the OxyContin epidemic around 2010. This is where I began to spiral hard, ostracizing myself from friends and family until I became absolutely homeless. I ended up being jailed so many times I lost count. Then I ended up in prison when I was 27, which was an oddly liberating experience as I was unequivocally on my own with no one coming to rescue me. 

Serving 16 months for drug-related crimes and residential burglary, I had a lot of time to reflect. I wasn’t happy with where I was at in life, or who I’d become, and decided something had to change. And for me, the answer was everything had to change. I began making what changes I could while incarcerated: how I carried myself, the content of my conversations, and what my goals were. It was the first time in my life, since I was 11, that I’d accumulated any length of sobriety, so I had clarity and a shifted perspective. 

Upon my release, I decided to follow through with my goal of getting a GED—which, at the time, I viewed as the pinnacle of educational attainment for someone like me. But my counselor at the time, Daylen Roberts, helped me fill out the FAFSA and encouraged me to enroll in community college. I had some doubts. The evidence I had to work with was that I was a failure at school—but this time around it was radically different. I loved it. I was passionate about every subject. It was nothing short of a magical experience and resulted in me transferring to UC Berkeley with three associate degrees and a 4.0 GPA. 

What are the challenges of being a formerly incarcerated student?
Johnny Smith:
Early on, when I started at community college, I was still under a 3-year parole supervision term. The constraints created a whole host of barriers, including surprise home visits, which required me to drop whatever it was I was doing to provide random urine analysis testing at the parole office. It generally just placed additional demands on my already hectic student schedule. And there is this persistent imposter syndrome with every new semester. Then there were precursor barriers to employment, such as being denied becoming an American Sign Language (ASL) tutor on the basis of my criminal background. 

But besides the barriers I faced, being denied opportunities because of my criminal record, I’m actually empowered by my identities and my lived experiences. They lend a unique perspective in academia, which has helped me excel as a scholar. Additionally, I have membership to groups with other impressive individuals. First, I’ve found support from the Second Chance Program at Santa Rosa Junior College, and then from the Underground Scholars here at Cal. Since recovery is a huge part of my story, I’m also supported by Recovery at Cal, where I’ve been a student recovery coordinator for a couple of years now, and my peers are constantly impressing me. While there are certainly challenges to being a formerly incarcerated student, they’ve been offset by the amazing communities I’ve become a part of.

Who's been your mentor(s) at UC Berkeley?
Johnny Smith: Grad students, professors, staff and my peers have all been influential. Sociology doctorate student Carmen Brick and Miller Scholars Program Manager Luisa Gialianetti helped me get my feet wet with research. Leah Carroll, a former program manager with Haas Scholars Program, Sociology Lecturer Laleh Behbehanian and Sociology Chair Dave Harding all played instrumental roles in helping me to develop my research, sharpen my critical thinking skills in the classroom, and being there for me through times of personal hardship as well. Sociology alumnus Michael Cerda-Jara and doctoral student Khoi Quach with the Underground Scholars have also been role models and hands-on peers helping me to successfully apply to grad school myself.

Why did you decide to major in Sociology?
Johnny Smith: When I took a sociology course at community college, it resonated with me on a deep level. It really helped me to understand social structures and systemic inequalities and put my own life adversity into context. Why did I grow up impoverished? Why has OxyContin became an epidemic? Why was jail always the response to my drug-related crimes? Drawing from my lived experiences, I’ve conducted important research on probation reform. I feel equipped to continue interrogating tough sociological questions, particularly those that affect individuals impacted by the carceral state.

What did you like best about your UC Berkeley experience, both academically and socially?
Johnny Smith: The rigor of academics really challenged me to evolve as a critical thinker and sociologist. The abundance of resources and opportunities allowed me to focus on being a student and participate in several research programs. With the support of NavCal, the Underground Scholars and Recovery at Cal, I’ve found the confidence to step into leadership roles and to develop social networks, friendships and cherished memories that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

What does graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in Sociology mean to you?
Johnny Smith: It means redemption and dreaming big. I’ve come so far and I’ve accomplished more than I’d ever imagined I would. It symbolizes the power of hope. Ten years ago, I was an 8th-grade dropout sitting in a prison cell with only a fierce determination to reinvent myself. I never would have guessed I’d fall in love with academia. Education saved my life!

What's next for you in terms of your academics and career goals?
Johnny Smith: This fall I’ll begin my Ph.D. studies in sociology at Harvard University. I’m still in shock—much like when I was accepted to UC Berkeley for undergraduate studies. Beyond acquiring my Ph.D. from Harvard, the possibilities are still crude and unimaginable. I do envision myself working with marginalized populations, particularly students affected by incarceration or addiction. Until then, I’ll continue to remain open to opportunities that inspire hope in others.

UC Berkeley Sociology Graduate Johnny Smith