Tajze Johnson

In the midst of a kidney disease battle, Tajze Johnson '24 will earn his doctorate in Occupational Therapy from Methodist University this weekend.

August 11, 2020 was a day Tajze Johnson ’24 will never forget.

He answered a phone call from his doctor who told him significant news: Johnson had kidney disease and needed to complete dialysis immediately.

“That day changed my life,” Johnson said. “But I’m able to mask all of the trouble by coming to class, fulfilling my future, and helping others.”

Fast forward nearly four years later, Johnson is still battling kidney disease, but he will also have the distinct honor of being called “Dr. Johnson” as he earns his doctorate in Occupational Therapy from Methodist University this weekend.

Journey to Occupational Therapy

Johnson grew up in Rochester, N.Y., where he learned about occupational therapy at a fairly young age. His mother, Makeba, who worked as a nursing manager at a nursing home, introduced him to physical therapy and later occupational therapy.

“From that point, it was all about occupational therapy,” he added. “All I wanted to do was figure out my path to getting there, and it was an interesting journey to say the least.”

Johnson completed an associate degree at Finger Lakes Community College and then a bachelor’s degree at Belmont Abbey College, all while working full-time as a general manager at an automotive retailer. He then finished a master’s degree in Healthcare Administration at Purdue Global while becoming a certified occupational therapy assistant through Eastern Virginia Career College.

But Johnson knew he wanted to learn more if he wanted to accomplish his dreams of becoming an occupational therapist, so his attention turned to Methodist University’s doctoral program.

“I was doing research and found out Methodist University’s Occupational Therapy program was the first accredited program of its kind in North Carolina. I wanted to be there,” he said.

It was around that time that Johnson found out about his kidney disease, making the task of applying to graduate schools even more challenging. But according to Johnson, MU’s faculty and staff made the decision easy for him to attend the University.

“During my interview with Dr. Meredith Gronski (Dean, College of Health Sciences & Human Services; Director & Associate Professor of Occupational Therapy), she applauded my brilliance and resiliency to attend graduate school,” Johnson said. “Then, the first time I saw her in person, she took the first opportunity to get to know me and let me know that they were here for me.”

Excelling at MU

Johnson started Methodist University’s Doctor of Occupational Therapy in 2021, quickly developing his skills and knowledge in various areas, especially leadership, pediatrics, rehabilitation, intensive care, management, policy and procedures, and research.

In April, Johnson, along with classmates Christopher Harper ’24 and Raymond McCall Jr. ’24, even recently shared their research with the entire campus during Methodist University’s CRC Symposium Day poster sessions – explaining the general protocol for implementing switch-adapting and 3-D printed devices for people facing environmental barriers due to upper extremity motor impairments.

Johnson (center) presents at the CRC Symposium.

Gronski said it is one of the many examples of Johnson’s academic and personal excellence.

“Throughout his time in the program, Johnson consistently pushed MU, the Occupational Therapy faculty, and his classmates to be better,” Gronski said. “He is a true leader as he actively pursued and embraced any professional opportunity that came his way.”

While at MU, Johnson has served in the National Occupational Therapy Assembly of Student Delegates and was even selected for a national student research mentorship program.

Johnson’s leadership outside of the classroom stands out, as well. He started the first graduate chapter of the Black Student Union at Methodist University in 2022, helping host various events while creating a dedicated space for Black graduate students to gather and build community.

“One of the biggest things that my mother raised me to do was to always think of how to help others,” Johnson said. “It’s been one of my biggest missions to seek out other young men of color and tell them about occupational therapy. To see other people who look like me push the field forward is a beautiful thing.”

He also points to various Methodist University faculty, staff, and students for making an impact on his life over the last several years including Gronski, Harper, McCall, Sharon Jenkins (Office Manager of Occupational Therapy), Dr. Quincy Malloy (Chief Diversity Officer), and Gavin Myrick (Director, Student Belonging & Inclusion).

Perseverance Through Trials

One of the most difficult times during Johnson’s tenure came a few months ago. On December 26, 2023, as he

Harper, Myrick, McCall, Johnson

continued to battle through his kidney disease, Johnson received a phone call saying he might be able to receive a transplant.

A kidney transplant would take Johnson out of the classroom for an extended period of time so he immediately informed Gronski, who quickly developed a plan to make sure Johnson could continue to complete the program on time.

“I didn’t get the transplant, but it was the first sign that it’s around the corner,” Johnson said. “But to know that the faculty had my back during that tough time meant the world to me.”

Johnson’s personal health battle has sparked an interest in helping others going through similar situations. He, with the help of his fiancé Brittany, recently developed his own foundation to spread knowledge and information regarding kidney disease – an area they hope to work together in down the line.

The Next Chapter

As Johnson is set to walk the stage during Methodist University’s graduate commencement on Saturday evening, he looks forward to being hooded by his fiancé, who has offered continued support along with Johnson’s mother, father, brother, and stepfather.

“It’s exciting. Just like when I proposed to my fiancé, it will represent the start of a new chapter and a new beginning for us,” he said.

Johnson during the OTD Pinning Ceremony in 2023.

Following graduation, Johnson plans to implement a 14-week pilot program for occupational therapy’s role in organ transplants at Wake Forest Atrium. Long term, Johnson hopes to continue research in the organ transplant area while creating protocols for hospitals throughout North Carolina. He even has eyes on opening his own practice one day, a dream that would not be possible without Methodist University.

“Methodist University has changed my life for the better,” said Johnson. “It has given me opportunity. It took a chance on me when I was going through a chronic illness and believed in me. I’ll always be grateful for my time here.”

Update: A Special Commencement Gift

Following commencement on May 11, Johnson’s younger brother Manning Johnson surprised him with a song that would reveal he would donate his kidney to Johnson, as seen below on Instagram.

“My reaction was pure tears to be honest,” Johnson said. “I told him thank you for saving my life!”

Methodist University’s Doctor of Occupational Therapy program was the first fully-accredited, entry-level doctoral program in occupational therapy in North Carolina and now offers a bachelor’s-level program training occupational therapy assistants. To learn more or to apply to either program, visit the program webpage.

Johnson’s story was also featured in the Fayetteville Observer.