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Endowment and Awards Luncheon Remarks: Jerrie Johnson

J. Cole, one of my favorite rappers of all time, lives by the motto of a dollar and a dream—a concept that I've become very connected to over these past few months. In September a good friend of mine convinced me that I should apply to grad school. At first I thought I’d just graduate and start working, but when I reflected on the resources that were right here, at my fingertips, I knew that I had nothing to lose. I would soon find out that my bank account would disagree with that last statement. Applying to grad school for acting is expensive—the cost of application fees, audition fees, travel to auditions, sleeping arrangements for those weekends, and food in order to survive just piled higher and higher the further I got. But I didn’t let this frighten me. I even took risks—knowing that I had no money, I decided to travel all the way to the West Coast for auditions that I could have done in New York. I was literally living off of a dollar and a dream and every time I thought that I wouldn’t have any more funds for travel, food, and basic necessities, I would magically get a scholarship or tax returns—just in the brink of time, it always worked itself out. Little did I know I had always lived by this motto, “a dollar and a dream.”

My freshman year of college I got a call that my family had experienced a house fire and that they'd become homeless. Now this was not the first time that my family had been displaced by a house fire. When I was thirteen I watched my home, where all of my siblings and I grew up, burn in flames. I thought we had nothing before, going nights without food, some nights without hot water or even electricity. As a child these basic necessities were privileges, things that I appreciated but I must've taken for granted, the hand-me-downs that kept me warm and the roof that saved me from the rain, because in that moment we had actually nothing—or at least I thought so then. In reality we had everything. We were alive with the ability to dream and think freely. This was one of many tests to teach me that life is more then the material things we accumulate, and that those things are temporary pleasures.

I knew that I wanted more from life, and although no one in my immediate family before me has ever been to college, I wanted to set the example. My dreams expanded beyond North Philadelphia, to places I couldn't reach from home. So with no money and a pocket full of determination, I applied for college. A week before the first day of classes I decided to attend Penn State, and it was one of the best decisions I had ever made. Excited, I began to pack my things for a four-year adventure. I had worked two jobs that summer and was excited to have rebuilt what I had lost in the fire years earlier. Unfortunately someone had a different plan for me. My aunt with whom I was living at the time decided that since I didn't participate in her event, I couldn't retrieve any of my belongings. I was devastated, yet again I felt that I had nothing. I would be attending college with a small bag of summer clothes and a pair of sandals. It wasn't until a few months into my college career, when I got the call that my family had yet another house fire, that I realized that material things are just temporary. What's essential to meeting our full potential is the mental capacity to think far beyond what we know to be possible. A dollar and a dream is a metaphor for the possibilities life has and the internal resources needed to explore those possibilities. Our society puts so much power in money that my mother had never left north Philly, not because she doesn’t want to but because she doesn't think that she has the money to do so. I've never been on a cruise or a family vacation or even to Disney World, not because we couldn't afford it (it would've taken lots sacrifice) but because we thought we couldn't. A dollar and a dream has gotten me to the best institution in the world where, in a few short weeks, I will be the first in my family to receive a bachelor’s degree. A dollar and a dream has allowed me to explore three different cities in California and New Mexico all in less than a month’s time. A dollar and a dream got me into three of the best acting schools on the West Coast. A dollar comes and goes but dreams can last a lifetime. In August I will be moving to San Francisco, where I will spend the next three years pursuing my M.F.A. in Acting at the American Conservatory Theater, the best acting conservatory on the West Coast. All because I had the faith to look beyond the dollar and the strength to hold on to my dreams.