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Tapping For Tuition: Penn State Student Dances to Fund His Education

Joshua Johnson thought he had little hopes of achieving something none of his family members ever had: a college education.

But then, after applying to numerous schools during his senior year of high school, an acceptance letter came: Penn State University.

To afford tuition, Johnson scraped together enough money through the help of mentors, friends, and—oddly enough—several hundred New York City straphangers.

Unusually resourceful and talented, Johnson travels back and forth between Penn State and the bowels of New York City, where he tap dances on the subway platforms to help raise the $6,000 he needs each year for tuition, books, meal plans, and other bills. (That’s the balance after his financial aid packaging—comprised of a Pell Grant, Stafford loans, and $200 per semester in scholarship—is applied.)

Campus Progress spoke with Johnson—who was recently featured in the New York Times and other media outlets, including an appearance Wednesday on “The Ellen Show,” when Ellen Degeneres surprised him with two gifts—about the challenges he faces juggling tap dancing for tuition while pursuing an education he’s paying for and his plans for the future.

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Here’s the slightly edited interview:

How long have you been tap dancing to pay for college costs?

Since freshmen year, I’ve been traveling back and forth from my home—New York City—to tap dance on the New York City subways. That’s how I raised most of my money for school, along with donations. I remember in my senior year, after I graduated from high school, that summer I really had to figure out how I was going to get money for school. I called Penn State every single day telling them my situation. [The phone calls] went from ‘Hello, Penn State University, how can I help you?’ to ‘Good Morning, Josh. Still the same story?’

They knew my situation. … Luckily, my godmother’s daughters got into school, so she knew the ins and outs about college and getting in.

It came down to the last two weeks before my freshmen year started and I still needed roughly $3,000. I raised $1,000 through tap and I still didn’t have enough. Two days before I got in, a lady from College For Every Student thought I was a great guy and I told her my situation and she wrote a check for $2,000 and it was amazing. That’s how I got in, and ever since then I’ve just been raising money through tapping—doing  street performances—just to stay in. 

As a first generation student, was there anything about college you weren’t prepared for?

I realize with some of the classes I applied to, and some of the courses that I took, I was expected to have a basic understanding of that class. There were a lot of core classes that I may have taken the prerequisites to get in but there was a lot I didn’t understand. It was hard for me, and still is hard for me, to excel in school in the way I’d like.

How do you balance your time earning money from tapping and doing your school work?

It’s killing my grades just to travel back and forth to Penn State. It’s a five-hour bus ride to New York City and a five-hour ride back, so that’s a whole day of travel by itself. Usually I end up passing out on the way back to Penn State because I’m so tired from working throughout the weekend.

I’m really focusing on raising money for school, so there’s no study time. It’s really killing my grades, and I was never an A student. I have to work really hard to just get that B. It’s like a full-time job being in school and a full-time job working and raising money for weekends.

What do you want to do when you graduate?

I’m not sure what exactly but I have a Plan A. If you only have a Plan A and dedicate your heart, your mind, your body, and soul and effort, the universe has no other choice but accept that that plan is getting ready to fulfill itself.

Since I got into Penn State, my Plan A was to go to Penn State. I don’t have a plan B. Just like I said I was going to go [to Penn State], I did. There are only minor setbacks.

For the summer, I’m planning to partake in LA’s Tap Fest with Maud and Chloe Arnold. Beyond that, just graduation.

When did you start dancing?

I’ve been dancing for five to six years. When I graduated from eighth grade from Wadleigh Secondary School and entered into their high school, they turned it into a performing arts school. I was on the basketball team, so I thought that was corny. I told [the teachers], ‘I play basketball and that’s what I do, that’s it. I don’t do electives.’

They ended up putting us in a room—the whole basketball team, a couple of kids who cut up in school, and some bourgeoisie girls who were in this one classroom for this one period just because we didn’t want to do any electives. We did everything from fight each other to tell jokes to sleep.

[The teachers] were getting upset and said, ‘We have to do something with these bad kids,’ so they hired a tap dancer from the Apollo and they thought that was the cure. The guy came in and he did a couple of steps and we were all fascinated with it. His name was Omar Edwards, and he was real smooth with it.  

People started dropping out of the class one by one. When we did the final count of who was left in the class, it was half of the basketball team and some really bad kids. It was really interesting how the class turned out.

I love tap now. … I would love to be an international tap dancer, performing and getting paid to go all around the world and teaching.

A lot of dancers in high school decide early that they are not going to college; they know they are going to be professionals. Why did you choose to pursue higher education instead of going straight into professional dance?

During my senior year of high school, when everyone started applying to college, I thought I wasn’t going to get accepted and I wasn’t too serious with tap at the moment. I just tried to apply to school to see what happened.

I got accepted, and then I realized no one in my family actually went to college and actually graduated, I knew I had an opportunity to make a difference in my family’s [history], being a first generation college student. When I got in there, it was a challenge—and a challenge I took head on. I am still sticking to it until I graduate.

Have you taken out any loans to cover the extra tuition costs that tap dancing doesn’t?

I have a Pell Grant, Stafford loans, subsidized and unsubsidized loans. Sallie hit me up, but I said no. I know I’m going to be in some debt when I get out of school, but I don’t want to be into something so crazy that I will be paying it when I’m 90 years old.

Are you worried about your student loan debt once you do graduate?

There isn’t any situation that I have set up for myself that I can’t handle. It might get out of control, but I always try to contain it to make sure I can complete the course. I just want to make sure the now is halfway decent, or good, so the future will follow. If I’m in school now—and am getting good grades, and working hard towards getting good grades—then that will lead to a good job, which will lead to me paying for my student loans. That’s how I always looked at the situation.  

But the whole way it’s set up, how much money we have to spend for college—and I’m not just talking about myself—it’s always been weird to me that we have to pay for education after a certain point. It’s like we’re traveling on a highway and you get this far and now you have to pay a toll. That doesn’t make sense to me: So now you’re just cutting us off, and this is the end point, and now we have to pay for [education] when we want more?

Everything is a hustle, and it’s really bad that people are using education as a hustle.

Naima Ramos-Chapman is an associate editor at Campus Progress.

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