Students Rising AboveBy Elizabeth Cook

By Jennifer Mistrot and Elizabeth Cook

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) — Most Students Rising Above scholars build their success through hard work and determination, and Malia Johnson is doing that and more.

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On a recent morning during her holiday break from college, the 19-year-old took a virtual tour through a dream courtyard project she started when she was a student at Oakland’s Fremont High School.

Conversational seating, inviting green space and seasonal sunlight are just some of the tools she used when creating her digital computer project. All these design choices are made by Johnson as a way to encourage community.

“I want to like incorporate community and like people getting along,” explained Johnson. “And like communicating and like bonding, I think when I design, that is definitely like one of the things that I like focus on.”

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That community focus has given Johnson the confidence to major in Architecture at Cal Poly. It’s an educational path the college sophomore and Oakland native chose with purpose.

“Because at Cal Poly, I feel like a minority most of the time,” said Johnson. “It allows me to embrace the fact that like, wow, I am the only person of color in my classroom that’s like one of the few black people that’s pursuing this major. Like I try to be, like, more positive about that.”

Rebuilding family is also an experience she’s embraced. Just before Johnson’s first year of high school, her parents were briefly incarcerated.

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“It was really short. It was my stepfather that was in there the longest,” recalled Johnson. “So even though it was like a short period of time, we had to start completely over.”

Johnson’s life changed overnight. She moved in with her grandmother, and became a second mom to her younger brother.

“It was hard,” said Johnson of that time period. “As soon as [my mom] was gone I had to start taking care of him.”

Johnson found herself taking care of her elderly grandmother, too.

“I found that she was hiding a lot of stuff from us in terms of medical,” explained Johnson of her grandmother’s health. “So she was actually doing a lot worse that she was telling us.”

Johnson remained committed to her family, helping her grandmother and brother, and supporting her parents, especially her mother, when they returned home. Through all of her family’s struggles, Johnson’s remained focused. School became her safe space, and architectural design her passion.

At Fremont High School, Johnson consistently made the honor roll, landed a prestigious internship, and won several awards for academic achievement. She graduated valedictorian of her high school class before heading to Cal Poly, where she’s made the dean’s list.

And Johnson’s watched as her parent’s rebuilt their lives too. Her mother has found a new career path serving others in non-profit work. It’s a commitment to community that Johnson shares. After graduation, she hopes to design affordable housing and other community-centered projects.

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“I feel like it did teach me about decision-making,” said Johnson of her family’s journey. “And then also just like responsibility, like being able to be on top of what I need to do.”

Elizabeth Cook