Super Scholars: Law Magnet debate star bound for Columbia with full-ride scholarship


Growing up in a low-income, single-parent household, Vernon Johnson learned early the value of education and philosophical inquiry.

He was a bright student from the start, participating in Talented and Gifted programs throughout elementary and middle school. As a student at the Judge Barefoot Sanders Law Magnet, Johnson and his debate partner, Crayton Gerst, consistently broke district debate records and were the first team in Dallas ISD history to attend and qualify twice to the Tournament of Champions, the most prestigious and competitive high school debate tournament.

And that’s just the beginning of Johnson’s accomplishments. After he graduates this month, Johnson will attend Columbia University on a full-ride scholarship. His ultimate goal is to become a patent attorney dedicated to helping innovators achieve patents for climate mitigation technologies.

What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome in your life?

As a low-income minority student, I have never known affluence. Poverty is a traumatic experience that hinders one’s material and psychological well-being. Maturing in communities with high drug arrests, poverty, and crime forced me to experience firsthand the brutal social inequities that exist. Dealing with the death of my father, the imprisonment of my brother, consecutive evictions, and impoverished neighborhoods was not easy; it took perseverance to withstand such obstacles.

When you felt yourself struggling, what helped you hang on to reach senior year?

As a hobby, reading energized my intellectual curiosity and encouraged me to pursue success with unyielding diligence. More specifically, the works of Richard Wright, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs taught me the importance of triumph and perseverance within conditions of abjection. Their writings reminded me of the importance of not settling for the world that is. Honestly, it was just a matter of keeping the dream alive; ambition is what allowed me to keep pushing, to not give up. I would jokingly tell my mom “the hood is not my natural habitat.” It was something I couldn’t get used to. I rejected the call to “adapt” and “settle,” and that mentality took me far.

What teacher has had the greatest impact on your life?

The most impactful educator by far has been Kris Wright, my debate coach at Judge Barefoot Sanders Law Magnet. He played a vital role in cultivating my intellectual curiosity. After reading his master’s thesis entitled Queering Race sophomore year, I developed a deep enthusiasm for philosophy. By highlighting the social construction of race and the fluid nature of identity, Mr. Wright’s thesis caused me to rethink my own identity and existence. I would not be the person I am today without Mr. Wright. He believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself. I have never seen a teacher so passionate, dedicated, and excited about educating students.

What are some of your proudest accomplishments in your life?

  • Telluride Association Summer Program: 16 students were chosen out of 1100+ applicants to participate in the seminar Mapping Fictions of American Identity 1840-1940 at Cornell University. Seminars were centered upon interrogating the linkages between American literature, philosophy, and politics.
  • Dallas-Sendai Young Ambassadors Program (Tomodachi Initiative): Nine students were selected to become Dallas Young Ambassadors to Sendai, Japan in an effort to enhance US-Japan relations and cultural understanding. The cultural exchange program involved homestays, visits to Japanese schools, meeting the mayor of Sendai, speaking with local survivors of the 2011 tsunami, and much more.
  • 2X Tournament of Champions (TOC) Cross Examination (CX) Qualifier: The TOC is the most prestigious and competitive high school debate tournament of the year. My partner and I were the first in the history of Dallas ISD to qualify twice in CX debate.
  • TOC CX Octofinalist: This year my partner and I were the first in the history of Dallas ISD to reach elimination rounds out a pool of 78 CX teams.
  • Texas Forensics Association State Tournament CX Champion: My partner and I were the first in Dallas ISD history to win the state tournament.
  • 2X NSDA Nationals Debate Tournament CX Qualifier: My partner and I were the first in the history of Dallas ISD to qualify twice and to reach elimination rounds.
  • Gates Millennium Scholarship Recipient: 1,000 students were selected out of more than 53,000 applicants to receive a scholarship funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The scholarship covers the full cost of attendance for undergraduate studies and can also be applied to certain graduate programs.
  • QuestBridge National College Match Scholar: I received a full ride to Columbia University via the QuestBridge National College Match, which aims to link low-income students to top tier colleges and universities.
  • Ron Brown Scholarship Recipient: 28 students out of approximately 5,000 applicants were selected to receive a $40,000 scholarship to cover undergraduate educational expenses.
  • Goldman Sachs Ron Brown Scholar Distinction: 10 students out of the 28 scholarship recipients were selected to receive internship opportunities and mentoring from Goldman Sachs representatives.
  • East Dallas Leadership Association: Founded the association to help tutor low-income youth within the community.
  • Townview Ambassadors: Serves as president on the student-led organization that helps in hosting school activities and community service projects.
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