The story of how Jenee Gaskin Johnson ’79 came to mentor a Mount Holyoke student she had known as a baby begins two decades ago in California.
When Khadija “Mimi” Boury ’14 was a newborn, Johnson would hold her and push her in a swing while Boury’s mother, Ami, a master hair braider originally from Senegal, did Johnson’s hair. Johnson felt a connection to the child.
“This beautiful girl looks just like me when I was a baby,” she told Ami.
Johnson watched Boury grow over the years.
“She was just sweet from her mother’s womb,” Johnson says. “If you talk to her, she’s very gentle, very soft-spoken, very genuine—a loving young person.”
When Boury’s family moved back to Senegal in 2003, Johnson stayed in touch with them through Ami’s sister, who began braiding Johnson’s hair. It was she who told Johnson that Boury had chosen Mount Holyoke—on her father’s advice.
“He went to a conference where they were talking about Mount Holyoke, and he told me I should check it out,” Boury says. “I did, and I really liked the school. It was my first choice, and I got in.”
Johnson was floored. She too had chosen Mount Holyoke on her father’s advice, but she’d never mentioned the college by name to Boury’s family. Neither she nor Boury could believe the coincidence.
“It’s so crazy,” Boury says.
Their bond deepened. Johnson is the director of the San Francisco Black Infant Health Program, which seeks to close the city’s black-white infant-mortality gap. Boury is a psychology major who hopes to become a pediatrician. When Johnson learned that Boury was interested in pursuing a career in medicine, she created an internship specifically for her. It began last summer, continued over winter break, and is set to pick up again this summer.
As an intern at the San Francisco Black Infant Health Program, Boury has learned about the health disparities that contribute to the high infant-mortality rate among African Americans. She has attended seminars offered by the San Francisco Department of Public Health, which sponsors the program. And she has done her share of grunt work to make sure the program's daily operations run smoothly. Most importantly, she’s come to appreciate the value of having a mentor.
“Jenee is such a strong individual, and just being around her has made me grow as a person,” says Boury, who calls Johnson “tata,” which means “auntie” in the Senegalese language of Wolof. “She’s taught me so much. I’m a very shy person, but she has helped me to grow out of that. She’s helped me to become bold and strong and a black woman in this country.”
For her part, Johnson has enjoyed seeing Boury come into her own.
“I’ve been mentoring her on identifying her full voice and bringing that forward,” Johnson says. “What I mean by that is not waiting to be asked but offering her perspective, opinion, viewpoint—building her voice as a leader. Her work ethic is impeccable, she has an easygoing presence, and she makes herself accessible in any environment. I’m just helping her to have more range in her leadership.”
Johnson made a deliberate decision to be a mentor. She herself was mentored by a social-worker cousin who, she says, “modeled for me how to be an advocate for people.” Johnson had reached a personal and professional point where she wanted to pay it forward, and Boury was in the right place at the right time.
“I am really clear about my purpose, particularly at this stage in my life,” Johnson says. “Part of my personal mission statement is to be a voice for women on a path of ascension. I am in the right spot in terms of my work, and mentoring Mimi is an intentional and natural extension of this vision of mission.”
Johnson says mentorships are an essential part of a Mount Holyoke education because “you’ve got to have examples along the way.”
“You’ve got to be able to say, ‘How do I put my life together? How do I work and be a mom? What did this particular woman do to build her spiritual life? What are all the components that go into having a really good life?’ A young woman doesn’t know that. She has inklings of it, but the more exposure and experience she gets about how it can look, the more options she has for defining her own path.”
— Christina Barber-Just