Pharmacy Senior from Bahamas Finds Family at UAMS

By Amy Widner

Johnson told his story to the Board of Trustees of the University of Arkansas, which oversees UAMS, at its September meeting. Johnson is from Freeport, Bahamas, which was decimated by Hurricane Dorian in 2019. His aunt and cousin died, and many family members and friends were homeless.

“It was really tough,” Johnson said. “I came to school the next day, and all the students – not just my class, but every class – had come together and given me a check for thousands of dollars to send home to my family. And that overwhelming support just made it clear in my mind why UAMS was the right place for me, because it wasn’t just a school. It wasn’t a place for me to get a degree and move on. It became a family.”

Bryon Johnson

Byron Johnson is from the Bahamas. When his family was impacted by a hurricane in 2019, his classmates raised funds to help.Lara Woloszyn

It wasn’t the first time Johnson had been surprised by people from UAMS going above and beyond to help him.

Johnson came to Little Rock when a college recruiter offered him a full ride to Philander Smith College. He dreamed of going to medical school, so after graduating with his undergraduate degree, he started working at UAMS in its medical research labs, trying to build a good resume for applying to medical school. However, grant funding for his last position dried up, leaving him jobless.

He started working at a pharmacy to make money while he studied for the medical school entrance exam. It was there that the saw that pharmacists have incredible opportunities to build relationships with the public and interact with individuals, families, and children in ways that have a positive and direct impact on their health. He decided maybe pharmacy was the right fit for him after all, and found a mentor in UAMS College of Pharmacy alum Robert W. McKnight, Pharm.D.

“He showed me the ways to be a good pharmacist, how to help people, how to be there for them in a compassionate way, and it was because of him that I wanted to go to UAMS,” Johnson said.

Johnson started studying for the pharmacy school entrance exams on his own, without the help of study guides, which he couldn’t afford. Back home, his mother had leukemia, and finances were tight. He didn’t ask for help.

He didn’t do so well on the exam, and didn’t get into the College of Pharmacy on his first try.

But then he got a call from Director of Admissions Angie Choi, Ed.D.. She told him about the pharmacy college admission test prep program.

“They provided me with ample study material, and I got to shoot my score all the way up,” Johnson said. “I was accepted on early admission for the following year. And just that initiative for her to reach out to me made me realize UAMS was the place I wanted to be for sure. I didn’t apply anywhere else.”

Johnson started school in August 2017, buckling down for the challenge of rigorous study while more than 1,000 miles from home. That’s when his UAMS family first started forming a circle of support.

“Everyone knew that I didn’t have family here,” Johnson said. “I have had countless invitations for Thanksgiving dinners, ‘Come to my house for Christmas.’ Having people look at me as one of their own and invite me into their homes – I’ve met grandmothers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles – that’s been the most rewarding part of my experience here.”

Now Johnson makes it a top priority to represent UAMS College of Pharmacy with pride whenever he can. He is the president of multiple organizations. He has represented UAMS at conventions across the country. He participated in a business plan competition with pharmacy schools across the nation. UAMS is in the finals with the University of North Carolina and the University of Iowa.

“We plan to win,” Johnson said. “In the last nine years, UAMS had eight top-10 teams. In the last eight years, we’ve had six top-three teams. And in the last seven years, we’ve won the competition three times.”

As graduation nears, Johnson is looking forward to continuing to work as a pharmacist in Little Rock, but his long-term goals include opening his own pharmacy in Little Rock and another in the Bahamas. He would like to start a scholarship fund at UAMS.

“I want to help another student the way that I was helped throughout this journey,” Johnson said. “I’m very appreciative for UAMS and what they’ve done for me, my UAMS family.”