Grand Rapids — If you pay a visit to the Nissan Dealership on 28th Street SE in Grand Rapids, you might see a new face in the oil change bays, underneath a Maxima or Pathfinder or Rogue, carefully performing all the maintenance needed to keep customers’ cars running at peak performance.
The new employee is Mykel Johnson, and he is a lube technician with his sights set over the next few years on becoming a Nissan master auto technician as part of Nissan’s own in-house program.
What got him in the door though was the Automotive Technician program at Grand Rapids Community College, and he holds the special status of being the first student to graduate from GRCC supported by the Grand Rapids Promise Zone Scholarship.
The program gives free access to GRCC’s associate degree and job training and certification programs for eligible students who live within the city of Grand Rapids and graduate from one of the 24 public, public charter, or private high schools located inside city limits.
Johnson qualified on all counts — he attended City High, Wellspring Academy and the Grand Rapids Learning Center — and used his Promise Zone scholarship to finish the program a year after his high school graduation. Without the scholarship, he said, he likely would not have been able to afford to attend GRCC and land a full-time job a week after completing classes on March 25.
A ‘Celebratory Moment’
For Promise Zone Authority chairperson and former GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal, it’s heartening to see and hear of success stories like Mykel’s.
“This is a celebratory moment for the Grand Rapids Promise Zone Board and for Mykel and his family,” she said in a prepared statement. “Mykel’s story highlights the goals and vision we had for the Promise Scholarship — to be able to support the youth here in Grand Rapids as they pursue their college and career aspirations.”
More than 250 students enrolled in GRCC through the Promise Zone for the fall 2020 semester.
“The Promise Zone is off to a great start, providing opportunities for students to gain an education that will change their life without worrying about cost,” GRCC President Bill Pink said. “This is an awesome example of a community coming together to make higher education accessible to all. This will have long-term benefits for Grand Rapids, and West Michigan as a whole.”
Johnson sees the benefits already and said the scholarship was an important piece of his educational journey for sure. But there were also lots of people along the way who had his back when he needed them.
Indeed, when he speaks about where he is now, he is thoughtful about his answers, pausing to fully digest each question he is asked before responding.
But when it comes to who has inspired him, his answer comes more quickly: “My mom, my mentors, my uncles and my father.”
His mom has had some considerable health struggles, including surgeries and kidney problems.
Still, her son said, “she has been able to stay strong. She keeps moving forward and trying to grow and level up.”
“I plan to do the same,” he added.
Learning Center Made a Difference
The Grand Rapids Learning Center, a college-preparatory high school developed by GRCC in partnership with Grand Rapids Public Schools, was also an important place in his development as a student and in identifying automotive tech as a possible career path.
Lamont Vines was there at the time as the transition specialist (he has since moved over to another post at GRPS), and Johnson recalled his influence fondly.
“He used to stay on my case,” he said with a chuckle. “We used to joke around and have fun too at the same time, but I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it wasn’t for him.”
Hearing his former student’s praise brings a smile to Vines’ face.
“Mykel was an intelligent, soft spoken, extremely well-mannered student, with a sense of humor,” he said. “He always had a joke for Mr. Vines. From our first introduction, he knew exactly what he wanted to do post-graduation. So, our conversations would heavily consist of strategies for how he would reach his goal and the possibilities thereafter.
“It brings me great joy to hear that Mykel is doing great things.”
Autos and Basketball
In middle school and high school, Johnson said, he was all about basketball and cars.
He still remembers watching his dad drop a V8 into a Chevy S10 pick-up, along with numerous other mechanical and body modifications, and thinking that was about one of the coolest things he had ever seen. The truck was created 15 years ago and is still on the road, one of Mykel Johnson’s two daily drivers.
His other is a 2008 Pontiac Grand Prix, also with a V8 under the hood. And though he works at a Nissan dealership, he admitted he has a particular fondness for Pontiacs, bemoaning the fact that the badge was discontinued already a decade ago now.
“Pontiac is probably my favorite car company,” he says with a wistful smile.
Nissan will grow on him, he is quick to add, and he loves the work he is doing thanks to his GRCC degree.
“It’s going really well actually,” he said.
He added that folks at the dealership also don’t mind his recent media attention, including local TV, radio and print coverage of his historic Promise Zone achievement.
“It feels pretty good,” he said. “It’s a blessing. Everyone’s happy for me, and I like it.”