Inspiration, hope, belonging: Diversity forum speakers share meaningful message with Greater Johnstown students, community

·4 min read

Mar. 16—Looking out across the crowd of young faces at Greater Johnstown High School on Wednesday, Len Lawson, an English professor at Newberry College, South Carolina, challenged the group to not only find their dreams but pursue them passionately.

Mike Hill, a Maryland entrepreneur, took that message and built on it during his time on stage, recounting his diagnosis of Hodgkin's Lymphoma and the fight to survive.

"Life's not fair," Hill said. "You either let it kill you or use it to make yourself better."

Wednesday's event was presented by the Ron Fisher African American History Educational Fund and the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown SPARKS seed grant project, which promotes diversity, inclusion and equity.

Sponsors also included the Greater Johnstown School District, The Tribune-Democrat and the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies.

Lawson's path to becoming an educator and published poet was through a business degree and the realization that corporate management wasn't what he wanted to do with his life.

"Every day I learned to let the passion of my purpose lead me to my dreams," he said.

Lawson blended poetry into his presentation and told the students he wanted them to continue to learn about the world around them — even after they graduate from high school.

His goal was to show the students that pursuing their dreams can pay off, he said.

'The storms of life'

Hill fought his way back from the brink of death after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma in 2011 and receiving several treatments that weren't as successful as his doctors hoped.

That came after working hard to be a better football player with the goal of making it to the NFL so he could support his mother.

Relying on faith, determination and his "Dawg" mentality — a way of thinking that no matter what's in front of a person he or she must persevere to achieve dreams — he continued to fight until an aggressive chemotherapy and stem cell treatment was offered through the National Institute of Health.

"You've got to be able to take your pain and turn it into purpose," Hill said. "The only way to get through the storms of life is to embrace them as your own and use them."

He now collaborates with NFL teams such as the Philadelphia Eagles and Indianapolis Colts on his Dawg Culture brand and training.

"I want you to take the positive things said this morning and use those things," Cheryl Fisher, Ron Fisher's mother, said to the group.

Ron Fisher was a Tribune-Democrat reporter who passed away in late 2019. The fund was established in his name at the Community Foundation.

She and her daughter, Alexis, spoke prior to Lawson and Hill taking the stage.

Christian Wrabley and Eric Wentz, teachers at Greater Johnstown, brought in the speakers for the event, which continues Wednesday evening at Pitt-Johnstown.

Hill and Wrabley played college football together and Wentz befriended Lawson through their doctoral studies.

'I feel really inspired'

Students at the school embraced both messages and enjoyed hearing from the visitors.

"It made me feel like your dreams can come true if you work hard enough," sophomore Kaitlyn Kuruzovich said.

She was one of the learners invited to break-out groups to work with Hill and Lawson after the presentations.

Kuruzovich said Hill's message resonated with her, especially his battle with cancer because her mother had a similar experience.

"Talking to Mike (Hill), I feel really inspired," she said.

Student Elijah Smith agreed that Hill's message hit close to home.

"It means a lot that they try to introduce us to different people," he said of the event.

During Hill's second meeting he continued to talk to the students about his journey and participated in a question-and-answer session.

Lawson's group brainstormed ideas about dream careers and wrote poems related with those concepts.

They also played a word association game and talked about writing.

"I think I'm definitely way more motivated," student Evan Gates said.

Hearing from the speakers made her realize that change can come and she can be part of that.

Aniyah Britt, her classmate, said she learned to follow her passion in life.

She was also inspired by Lawson's quote, "A dream without purpose is just a wish."

"That hit a spot in me," Britt said.

Tuangtip Klinbubpa-Neff (Noon), SPARKS principal investigator and Pitt-Johnstown assistant professor of English literature, was also impressed by the presentations.

"Their messages are so meaningful," she said.