“I Can and Will Break Through”
How Jasmin Johnson learned to cultivate her self-worth from within.
by Jasmin Johnson
LONG BEACH, CALIF.
“Don’t read the email at dinner,” my mother warned me. It was my 18th birthday, and UCLA, my mother’s alma mater, had sent me a message from the admissions office.
The temptation was too great, and after I read these words—“Unfortunately, we will not be able to offer you a spot for our Class of 2019”—I burst into tears at the restaurant. When I returned home, I promptly locked myself in my bedroom and refused to come out all weekend. It seemed like one more thing heaped onto a pile of rejections.
Since my tween years, I had struggled with low self-esteem and identity issues. By the time I was 13, I cried several times a week about my appearance and personality. I wanted to be smarter, cooler, thinner and prettier. I felt like no one liked me.
Around this time, my mother, Billie Jo Moore, attended a conference at the SGI-USA Florida Nature and Culture Center. While she was away, I began to do morning gongyo on my own for the first time. From that point on, even when I didn’t do evening gongyo, I always did morning gongyo.
I also began participating in an Ikeda Youth Ensemble performing group. When I went to SGI-USA activities, the members would tell me that I was gaining fortune from all the causes I was making in my Buddhist practice, but I didn’t really believe them.
After several years of participating in youth activities, people began remarking about the positive changes they saw in me—how I seemed brighter and happier—but I hadn’t yet seen these qualities in myself. In high school, with few other black students in my magnet program, I struggled with living up to a narrow social standard of what it means to be black. Most of the time, I felt like the odd one out.
The one thing I could count on was being an extremely ambitious student. I worked hard in high school and maintained a 4.25 GPA, while tutoring students in chemistry and math. My senior year, I even edited the admissions essays of some of my classmates, so, it was painful to see those same people be accepted into the schools that I had received rejection letters from, including Harvard, Yale and Berkeley.
My prayer to the Gohonzon has enabled me to recognize that my sense of self-worth is not based on external factors.
At first, when I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon, my prayer was just to be able to function without feeling worthless. But as I continued chanting, I realized that I was worth more than just my grades, looks, test scores or school.
In the end, I accepted a full scholarship to Fisk University, a prestigious, private, historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee. When I got there, I still had to fight my low self-esteem and anxiety when interacting with my classmates. But I chanted every day to become stronger, wiser and happier.
And with this prayer, attending Fisk turned out to be one of the best things that have ever happened to me. With a student-faculty ratio of 13:1, my professors and I became so close that I could text them about classes and call them about my grades. Through fostering these relationships with my professors and classmates, I was chosen to attend a series of competitions and events during my freshman year—opportunities I wouldn’t have dreamed possible.
This March, I traveled to St. Thomas, Jamaica, during spring break as part of a club that seeks to impact communities through entrepreneurship. We visited a particular community—where the unemployment rate is 80 percent—to begin implementing a four-component economic improvement plan.
The following month, in April, I participated in the 2016 International Business Model competition, the first and largest student startup contest in the world, held at the Microsoft Campus in Redmond, Washington, where our team was a semifinalist. In May, I took part in the Goldman Sachs Undergraduate Camp in New York, which included interactive group projects, technical training and networking.
I was also accepted into the London School of Economics Summer School for three sessions. I chose instead to return to California to take a position as a business-banking intern with a large publicly traded bank, working under one of the very few black commercial bankers in California. After maintaining a 3.95 GPA, I will be part of Fisk’s W.E.B. Du Bois General University Honors Program this fall.
I realize now that all my experiences in the Ikeda Youth Ensemble and other SGI-USA activities prepared me to take on these opportunities. They taught me how to work in groups, harmonize with different personalities and reflect on myself. Doing gongyo each day expands my capacity to juggle multiple activities, while maintaining the ability not only to do everything I need to, but also to enjoy it.
The biggest benefit, however, has been the change I feel inside. I have finally gained more confidence in myself, and I have a broader understanding of the black experience. Attending Fisk has taught me that I don’t need to fit a mold; it’s OK to be myself.
Slowly but surely, my prayer to the Gohonzon has enabled me to recognize that my sense of self-worth is not based on external factors. It is something that must be cultivated from within. I continue to deepen my faith as the only Buddhist student in my entire school, where I’ve shared Buddhism with many students and others who have never met a Buddhist before!
Whenever I feel discouraged, I always return to this guidance from Nichiren Daishonin: “Those who believe in the Lotus Sutra are as if in winter, but winter always turns to spring,” (“Winter Always Turns to Spring,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 536). High school felt like a really long winter, but my Buddhist practice taught me that if I continue moving forward, I can—and will—break through.