Name: Susan Johnson
Department: Office of International Programs
Title: Senior Counsel to the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development, Associate Vice President of International Programs
Date you joined APLU: February 11, 2019
What was your first real job? My first real job in the international realm was working as an English Teacher in Czechoslovakia after the so-called Velvet Revolution of 1989. I was living in Germany at the time and took a position at a formerly Communist state-run school that was trying its hand at privatizing. The Czech teachers had banded together to run/manage the school. I was one of about five native English speakers who joined their staff to teach classes and advise on adapting the school to the world of privatization. It was an interesting time to live in Czechoslovakia as it moved from Communism to Capitalism and ultimately separated into two countries: Czech Republic and Slovakia.
How did you end up working at APLU? In November 2018, I retired from UC Davis where I had been Director of the Borlaug Leadership Enhancement in Agriculture Program (Borlaug LEAP), a fellowship program for graduates students from Africa. Prior to that I worked as Associate Director of the Global Livestock CRSP and the Afghanistan PEACE project with Tag Demment, who is now APLU's Vice President for International Programs. I was visiting DC when the position as Senior Counsel to the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development (BIFAD) opened up. Through the years, I had interacted with BIFAD and USAID from an implementer’s perspective. I was very happy being retired but the chance to work closely with BIFAD was too intriguing of an opportunity for me to pass up. Plus moving from California to Washington DC sounded like a fun adventure!
What education or work experience had the greatest impact on you? By far the greatest influence on my life was the “year abroad” program I participated in as a junior in college. I studied at the University of Heidelberg in Germany for the year but then decided to stay. I completed my bachelor’s degree, but went on to study at the Sorbonne and Cordon Bleu in Paris, au pair in Switzerland, and teach English in Prague. The time in Germany sparked a lifelong passion for travel and international work and really changed the direction of my life.
What motivates you to work in higher education? I believe that the experiences you have in college have a huge impact on your life and can prepare you to be world citizens. As Director of Borlaug LEAP, I saw first-hand how even a short time in the US influenced the lives of young African students. Getting people out of their comfort zones, exposing them to new environments and new ways of doing things are vitally important. One of our Fellows shared that her experience with Borlaug LEAP changed her dreams for her future. She said, “Dreams are built on what you are exposed to. You can only dream of what you think is possible and what you think is possible has a limit. The more you are exposed to what is out there, the more you can dream.” That, to me, is what higher education and student exchange programs have the potential to do.
If I can add a plug for our YouTube channel: For more stories on how studying in the US impacted Borlaug LEAP Fellows, watch our videos.
What is your favorite thing about living in DC? As a newbie to DC, I am excited about exploring the city. I love the cosmopolitan nature of DC, the multitude of museums, and the array of events. I’m not that enamored with the crowds and congestion (I took time over the weekend to go see the Cherry Blossoms with 5 million other people!) but there seems to be a lot of green space to get away from the crowds.
What is one thing on your bucket list? I’ve never traveled much in Asia so I’d like to visit that part of the world one of these days.
Where is the best place you’ve traveled and why does it stand out? I love Paris and will never tire of visiting but nothing really beats a safari in Africa. My favorite place to go is the Masai Mara in Kenya. I’ve been at all times of the year and never had a bad experience. The Mara has a huge concentration of animals and excellent game viewing all year. There is always something to see and something new to experience. Rather than drive around looking for animals, my personal preference is to park the vehicle under a tree and sit back and let the world (and wildlife) pass by.