December 05, 2014

Student perseveres despite identity theft nightmare

by Christi Mathis

Chandrika Johnson CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Chandrika Johnson was beginning to think no one would know who the REAL Chandrika Johnson was. 

But when Johnson earns her diploma from Southern Illinois University Carbondale during the Dec. 13 commencement, it will indeed be the woman from Fayetteville, N.C., who endured two years of legal challenges after having her identity stolen. It has been quite a stressful journey, but Johnson said the faculty and staff at SIU have been incredibly helpful and supportive, even going so far as to offer to drive her the 600-plus miles home to fight the battle. 

Johnson earned the respect and praise of those around her at SIU for persevering to complete her doctorate in health education even though unearned criminal charges hung over her head for some time when a family member not once, but twice, gave Johnson’s name as her own when arrested. 

“Chandrika overcame various setbacks, including and especially having to battle severe identity theft,” Saran Donahoo, associate professor and interim chair of the Department of Educational Administration and Higher Education and director of the College Student Personnel Program, said. 

Johnson earned her bachelor’s degree in community health education from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke in 2002 and her Master of Public Health from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 2005. She went right to work as a lecturer at Fayetteville State University. 

A few years later, when she decided to pursue her doctorate, she was admitted to Columbia University and to the University of Tennessee. For a number of reasons, she decided to look at other options. Her colleague, LaDelle Olion, then Fayetteville State’s graduate school dean, spoke to her of his great experiences while earning his master’s degree at SIU. 

Johnson admitted she hadn’t previously heard of SIU, but in researching found that the university has one of the nation’s top-ranked health education programs and top-notch faculty. She visited campus and was excited about the university and the people she met, including Patricia McNeil, the now-retired assistant dean of the graduate school. She said McNeil and others, “Had me hyped about the program and ready to learn.” 

“The professors are very helpful, very caring and very knowledgeable,” Johnson said. “They are the movers and the shakers in the public health and health education field.” 

She began her studies at SIU in 2008 and worked as a graduate teaching assistant in health education. During the summer of 2009, she was thrilled to get a paid fellowship through SIU to spend about six weeks in Ghana. 

Still excited about the summer experience, and with the added pleasure of a newly obtained paid graduate research assistantship that fall, Johnson enjoyed a weeklong Thanksgiving break with her family. Her assistantship would lead to being co-author on two published articles and a presentation at a national convention. 

Just a few days after that Thanksgiving dinner, however, a cousin of Johnson’s was arrested for a variety of drug, alcohol and other charges. She had no identification with her and told officers that her name was Chandrika Johnson.  The woman was not fingerprinted but was given a court date to appear under her cousin’s assumed name. Johnson soon found herself facing criminal charges in Raleigh, N.C., nearly 1 ½ hours from her home and for offenses that actually occurred after she had flown back to SIU.  Fortunately, she had taken an earlier flight than originally planned, proving she couldn’t have committed any crimes. Nonetheless, Johnson had to go hundreds of miles away to clear her name during final exams week. 

“How could I leave, what would my professors think of me and would they believe in me?” Johnson worried. She feared she would fail the semester for missing exams and that her teaching career would be ruined if she couldn’t clear her name. 

Her fears were unfounded.  She was allowed to make up her exams and faculty members vouched that she was in Illinois at the time of the arrest.  It took more than a year and in the meantime, Johnson lost a grant she had applied for because at that point, the criminal background check revealed the other woman’s charges on her name. 

“The faculty and staff at SIU were very caring, patient, considerate and understanding during this process. Some of them even reached out to me by sending me cards, emails, flowers and just simply letting me know that they were praying for me,” Johnson said.  “They kept me strong, knowing that they had my back and that they cared.” 

Unfortunately, history would repeat itself in July 2010 when the cousin was again arrested, and again gave Chandrika’s name -- just as Johnson prepared to take her preliminary exams. This time, the television news even carried the story of Johnson’s arrest as part of a prostitution ring.  The other woman’s picture appeared on news reports with Johnson’s name attached.  

Due to a police error, Johnson found herself facing not only the new charges for crimes she couldn’t have committed because she wasn’t even in the state, but all of the crimes the other woman had committed since the age of 13. It took another long year to again clear her name, a year during which she couldn’t apply for jobs or grants due to the pending charges. Again, people at SIU were helpful in a number of ways, she said. 

“Everyone was so loving and caring and concerned about me,” she said. Ultimately, the other woman went to prison and Johnson’s name was free and clear again.  

Johnson encourages other people to perform background checks on themselves, being aware of the potential for things to happen to them like they happened to her. But she is also thankful that during her ordeal, she was at SIU. 

“Being at SIU has truly been a learning and humbling experience for me,” said Johnson. 

The future is looking bright as well.  She has already resumed teaching at Fayetteville as an instructor but beginning in January, she will be moving to a tenure track position as an assistant professor.  

In the future, she hopes to, along with a nutritionist and health educator, open a community health education center, initially focusing on helping women with health issues including cancer, reproductive organ issues, diabetes, high blood pressure and other problems. The goal is to expand to offer services to men as well.