Battling systemic lupus since high school, Shasa Johnson, of Baton Rouge, suffered kidney failure as she was working on her master’s degree in speech pathology at Southern University.

While living with the dialysis treatments for nearly four years, Johnson experienced deteriorating heart problems and needed surgery to replace two heart valves in 2008.

All this while Johnson took classes and worked as a speech assistant at Dorseyville Elementary School in White Castle.

“It was very difficult,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know if I could make it. There were times when I couldn’t get up.”

Johnson was one of 221 graduates Friday during Southern’s summer commencement at the F.G. Clark Activity Center.

In 2008 after healing from major heart surgery, Johnson said her prayers were answered when she was called about an emergency kidney donor availability at Tulane Medical Center and she was a match.

Fast forward three years and Johnson, now 37, finally graduated Friday from Southern with her master’s degree after years of health roadblocks.

“Oh my God, I’m so excited,” she said. “I’ve been very blessed. If it wasn’t for God and for my family, I don’t know what I would have done.”

Systemic lupus is an autoimmune disease that can attack every organ. The disease can be fatal, but it also often causes symptoms like rashes and extreme photosensitivity.

“Now, it’s not stopping me from doing anything,” Johnson said, noting that she is a big advocate for organ donors, especially in the black community.

Southern’s chief student marshal Friday, Whitney Olivia Allen, who had the highest grade-point average in the graduating class, also had her own health problems.

The difference though is that Allen’s problems came when she was born three months premature and weighed only 13 ounces.

The White Castle native said her parents were told she would be blind and have developmental disabilities.

That turned out completely false.

“I wasn’t supposed to excel, but I did just the opposite,” said Allen, who noted she was “walking and talking and singing” by age 2.

Given her early-life experiences, Allen now plans to attend the LSU School of Medicine in New Orleans with a goal of studying neonatology so she can help premature babies too.

Allen also wants to study theology and do mission work.

Allen, Johnson and the other graduates received their degrees after commencement speaker and state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, told the new graduates to take advantage of their gifts.

“The knowledge you’ve gained can never be taken away from you,” Smith said. “Therefore, you have a responsibility to yourself to use it to the utmost.”

Smith was praised by the Southern leadership for helping lead the fight against the proposal to merge Southern University at New Orleans with the University of New Orleans.

Smith chairs the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus that represented the core of the opposition.

“We remain on the battlefield,” Smith said, arguing that the fight to dismantle the Southern University System will continue next year.

“You must find a way to give back to Southern University,” Smith said, urging the graduates donate to their alma mater. “Besides that, it is tax deductible.”