Callings: ‘Let’s Work Through This Together’

Student, professor pursue their callings at Ole Miss

Kirk Johnson (left), associate professor of sociology and African American studies, and Randy Morgan, learning specialist for Student Academic Services, reconnect in the Grove. Johnson first inspired Morgan to study sociology, which has become one of his passions, and later persuaded him to complete his master’s degree. Photo by Srijita Chattopadhyay/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – Overcome with the burden of earning a master’s degree, Randy Morgan decided in 2020 that he’d had enough. He would quit and perhaps go back to his hometown or to his part-time job. Either way, he was done.

Then the Sherman native spoke with Kirk Johnson, University of Mississippi associate professor of sociology and African American studies. Johnson, who had taught Morgan to love sociology, told him something that even now, years later, he’s never forgotten.

“He told me that was silly,” Morgan said, laughing. “He said, ‘Let’s work through this together.'” 

Morgan went on to complete his master’s degree and teaches Sociology 101 at UM while working as a learning specialist for Student Academic Services in the FedEx Student-Athlete Academic Support Center. He smiles as he remembers the day that Johnson stopped him from making a mistake, but said it wasn’t the first time the professor had changed his life.

Before entering the master’s program, Morgan was an undergraduate history major minoring in sociology at UM. He did well in his classes, many of which he took at the university’s Tupelo campus to be closer to home. That’s where he met Johnson, who was teaching Race and Ethnicity Studies. 

“I fell in love with sociology when I met Dr. Johnson, when I saw how he viewed it, how he taught (it),” Morgan said. “He was introducing a lot of new concepts and theory to my life at the time, and he was able to take these concepts and apply them to his worldview. It was incredible.”

Johnson remembers Morgan as a bright-eyed young man who was eager to learn.

“What I noticed about Randy was he was taking it all in,” Johnson said. “Randy was like a sponge in that class.

“I remember asking, ‘Where did you come from?’ He was just so different.”

Johnson, who joined the university in 2005, said he, too, had struggled to find his passion as a young man. After graduating from Duke University in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, Johnson said he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do next.

For a few years, he edited the award-winning Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved for Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, where he realized he had a passion for studying sociology. He went on to write several books and work as senior researcher for the Emmy Award-winning PBS civil rights documentary “Eyes on the Prize.”

Johnson’s love of sociology drew him back to college in 1996, when he earned a master’s and, in 1999, a doctoral degree in the subject at the University of Illinois at Urbana.

When Randy Morgan (left) was struggling in his graduate studies, he turned to sociology professor Kirk Johnson for help. The support Johnson gave him led Morgan to finish his graduate degree at Ole Miss, where he teaches Sociology 101. Photo by Srijita Chattopadhyay/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

After teaching for five years at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, Johnson moved to the Ole Miss Department of Sociology and Anthropology, where he said he has not only been able to study his passion but also help guide young men and women on their journey to finding their calling.

“I love to help students,” Johnson said. “I think my passion for them comes from feeling isolated and alone when I was a student.

“It’s such a pleasure and a privilege to work with these students at this time in their lives.”

For each class he teaches, Johnson said he prints out a seating chart and attaches a name and photo to each student’s desk. He wants to remember the students’ names and faces, but, more importantly, he wants them to know someone cares about them.

“In a large lecture hall, they can feel like they’re one grain of sand in a sandbox,” Johnson said. “I want them to realize that someone notices, someone cares.”

When he recognized Morgan’s passion for learning, Johnson said he recommended that the student invest in his newfound love of sociology.

“I started name-dropping the graduate program,” Johnson said. “I knew he was a standout student.” 

The challenges Morgan faced in graduate school are the same challenges that all young students encounter at higher levels of study, Johnson said. They just need someone to believe in them and remind them that they’re capable.

“(Randy) has every right to be proud of his work,” Johnson said. “Randy stands out. He works hard.” 

After graduation, Morgan worked in the UM Office of Admissions before working in athletics and as an adjunct instructor of sociology. In both roles, Morgan said he aspires to be the kind of instructor who notices students, who sees their passion and helps them find their calling.

“Without Dr. Kirk Johnson, I would not have even attempted to earn a master’s degree,” Morgan said. “I would not be teaching a subject that I love at a university I have loved my entire life. 

“I would love to one day see Dr. Johnson in myself. I see his input every day, but I don’t think I’m there yet.”