Jennifer Johnson has many grandmothers, and two of them just gained U.S. citizenship. Johnson’s more than proud; a graduating AU senior, she tutored the two women on how to pass the citizenship exam.
And she’s done it entirely in Spanish, a new language for her as of college.
Every Saturday morning, Johnson wakes up early, treks out to Washington, D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood, and teaches her class of adopted family members at the Central American Resource Center, or CARECEN.
Johnson can’t help but smile when she thinks of her students. “It’s like having 15 new Latina grandmothers,” she said. “It’s really great.”
Other people are smiling about her work also. When Washington-area universities recently gathered at a conference dedicated to service, they named her one of just two Service-Learning & Community Engagement Undergraduates of 2014.
Johnson doesn’t only teach her grandmothers; she’s involved in service work both in the District and abroad. On Wednesdays, she visits the Next Step Public Charter School, where she prepares —again, entirely in Spanish—young adults for the GED.
During her seven months spent studying in Mexico last year, she volunteered in a rural indigenous village, implementing sustainable development projects aimed at helping women and children.
Johnson believes her first moments at AU were the catalyst for her passionate work. While taking part in the Freshman Service Experience, she visited CARECEN. “That’s where I first heard about issues affecting the Latin American community, issues I had never heard about,” she said.
Director of AU’s Center for Community Engagement & Service Marcy Campos believes Johnson’s passion for her work touches every organization she’s a part of. “The people at the sites are so excited to have her there,” she said. “Her commitment and character is conveyed by the quality of work she puts in with them.”
After her inspiring FSE run, she took advantage of AU’s Community Service Learning Program, which allows students to gain academic credits by coupling volunteer hours with courses. Campos’ class, Latinos of the DC Metropolitan Area, requires 20 hours of community service; Johnson decided to do 40.
“You can’t learn everything through work, but you also can’t learn everything from a book,” Johnson said of her decision. “Being able to put the theory and the practice together leads to a much deeper understanding of the issues and the situation.”
Though Campos teaches the course regularly, she was particularly struck by one end-of-semester reflection journal about a student’s experience—Johnson’s. "I was just so moved when I read it,” Campos said after seeing Johnson’s humility on paper. “This is what you hope happens in a service-learning class. The awareness of privilege, the empathy you develop, and the insight it gives you."
Even with all her care and attention to the community, Johnson is graduating in only three years as part of both the School of International Service's Global Scholars Program and the University Honors Program. She credits these programs with providing her a diversity of experiences, from a summer spent in Ecuador and Costa Rice to her current three-days-a-week internship at the Mexican Embassy.
“My experience wouldn’t have been nearly as positive or as rich as it’s been,” she said, “I work with Latin American issues every day within my country. . . .The opportunities AU has given me have been utterly phenomenal.”
Campos sees Johnson as a prime example of how a student receives so much in return from serving others; for her, the benefits expand far beyond graduation. “There are multiple ways to be engaged in the city and community,” Campos explained. “If you find the right match, it's something that will be essential to your full college experience and to preparing you professionally also."
As Johnson looks toward life after AU, she recalls how her 15 adopted Latina grandmothers have shaped her time—and she wouldn’t have it any other way. While she appreciates her recent award, her work has always been just about one thing: understanding and serving others.
“It was an honor even to be nominated . . . but for me it’s never felt like service. These are the kind of things I enjoy doing and like to do in my free time,” she said. “I like to practice my Spanish and help the immigrant community because they deserve it.”