From Foster Care to Honors Student, Rutgers Junior Earns Boren Scholarship

Julianna Johnson
Julianna Johnson is entering her senior year at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and will be spending the summer in Taiwan studying the country’s language and culture as the recipient of a Boren Scholarship.
Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

Julianna Johnson will spend the summer in Taiwan studying the country’s language and culture

Julianna Johnson was only 7, and then known as Cheng, when she was sent more than 7,000 miles from the rural village in the Fujian province of China, where she was being raised by her grandmother, to live with a father she didn’t know in the United States.

Over the next several years, Johnson lived in New York and New Jersey with strangers and people she was told were members of her extended family. When she was not in school, trying to learn in a language she didn’t understand, she worked in restaurants in New York City’s Chinatown and South Jersey with other Fujianese immigrants.

She only saw her father one more time after the day he picked her up at JFK Airport when she arrived in the U.S. and dropped her off to live with a family in Brooklyn.

“I knew no English, I couldn’t understand anything,” said Johnson, now 20. “I wasn’t able to answer yes or no to any questions so sitting in the classroom when I first came was really hard.”

At 10, she was removed from her difficult life in the United States and sent to foster care, eventually finding the parents who would adopt her and open the door to a world of new opportunities

Johnson is now entering her senior year at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and will be spending the summer in Taiwan studying the country’s language and culture as the recipient of a Boren Scholarship. The scholarship provides up to $25,000 to undergraduates to study in areas of the world that are critical to interests of the United States. In return, the organization asks students to commit to working for the federal government for at least one year after graduation.

It is an opportunity that Johnson, who is majoring in Chinese languages and culture and mathematics in the School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program, could have never imagined as a child. No one in her biological family had graduated from high school. The expectation, even after she came to the U.S., was that she would work as soon as possible and marry early.

In foster care she was told the odds were stacked against her: only 3 percent of former foster children graduate from college. She was determined not to become part of that statistic.

Instead, she is focused on what she can do with the doors opened through the scholarship. Johnson says she would like to use her Mandarin language skills working for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Department of State. “I have gotten a lot of help along the way and am looking forward to giving back,” she said.

Johnson's life changed not long after entering foster care when she was placed with parents who would become her forever family. Before that, Johnson lived in a number of different homes. She remembers her foster care social worker telling her that she probably was three years behind students her age academically because she had moved around so much.

“Each move meant I had to adapt to new people, ethnicities and races different from my own, new rules and new schools,” said Johnson. “I learned to be self-reliant and resilient.”

As she waited for her adoption to be completed in 2015, she changed her name to Julianna. She forged an identity that would help her fit in better with her new culture and would go with her new last name, Johnson.  

Living in Cherry Hill, Johnson’s parents, both Rutgers alums, hired tutors and did everything they could to make sure she got the help she needed to assimilate and succeed academically. The teenager who was still reading at an elementary school level when she entered high school, two years later scored in the top 8 percent in the country of those taking SATs to enter college.

Her parents worked hard to make sure their daughter stayed connected to her heritage – enrolling her in weekend Chinese school to give her a better understanding of Mandarin and in traditional Chinese dance and music classes. In her senior year of high school, after Johnson and others advocated for it to be added to the curriculum, she was able to take a language class in Mandarin.

While Johnson, who became a U.S. citizen when she was adopted, took her new parents name and is called “JJ” by some of her friends, officially she is Julianna Lan Lan Lubov Johnson. Besides her adoptive mother’s family name, it includes her nickname, or what the Chinese call a “little” name, Lan Lan, which translates to blue orchid, a symbol of love and strength.

At Rutgers Johnson is a student ambassador for foreign students at the University’s Global Admissions Office. She answers questions via email and video chats with foreign students and their parents seeking information about attending Rutgers. She is also a peer mentor in the Global Roommate Program, living with international students and offering support and guidance as they navigate life and academics at Rutgers, and president and choreographer for the Rutgers Chinese Dance Troupe.

She also was recently inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest and most prestigious honor society in the U.S., and the Rutgers Cap & Skull Senior Honor Society, which selects less than one percent of students entering their senior year.

“As I reflect on my life experiences, I am amazed that I am even here – a rising senior in college, in an honors program, contemplating my academic and professional future. I remember as a young child being told that education was not important,” she said.

Calling Johnson an intrinsically motivated self-starter, Flora McVay, program manager for the Office of International Academic Success at Rutgers Global, said Johnson is one of the most professional and proactive peer leaders who has worked at the program.

What made Julianna such an outstanding asset to the program was the combination of maturity and sincerity she brought to this exceptionally challenging role. Julianna’s poise paired with her natural and abounding capacity for empathy is what set her apart from the start; it’s what helped her hone real-world competencies as a peer instructor and what I believe will continue to guide her in all her bright and promising future endeavors.”

Arthur Casciato, director of Rutgers Office of Distinguished Fellowships, said getting to know Johnson was one of the highlights of his year.

"Very few candidates I have worked with have come as far or overcome as much as JJ has, and there’s absolutely no doubt that she’ll represent Rutgers and her country in Taiwan with distinction."