Laura Johnson

Associate Professor, Educational Technology, Research and Assessment

Laura Johnson

What year did you start working at NIU? 2006.

Where is your hometown, and where do you live now?
I grew up in Fairfax, Va., but have lived in Chicago for almost 30 years, so I consider it my hometown.

Where did you attend college and what degree(s) have you earned?
Grinnell College, B.A., English/Latin American Studies; University of California-Berkeley, M.A., Ph.D., Graduate School of Education, Language, Literacy, & Culture.

What do you like about working at NIU?
I greatly enjoy working and collaborating with colleagues across the university on a variety of innovative projects and initiatives. Our students are so inspiring and represent such a diversity of life experiences and backgrounds, and I learn from them every semester. I greatly value the emphasis NIU places on high-quality and engaged teaching, alongside rigorous scholarship, which I think uniquely positions us in the region and makes NIU a "hidden gem."

What advice would you give to students currently attending NIU?
I regularly advise the graduate/doctoral students I work with to take advantage of the wealth of resources that NIU provides, and to reach out to faculty and build networks with other students. Many of the students in the COE are considered "non-traditional" and are part-time students and it can thus be a challenge for them to develop a sense of community and establish relationships with potential mentors. I try to promote a sense of community in my classes and among my advisees, and encourage them to develop collegial relationships with peers.

Tell us about a research or engaged learning project you have led.
My area of expertise is in Community-based Qualitative Research — and I published a text on this for SAGE in 2017 — so most of my current research projects involve collaboration with community organizations, particularly those serving Latinx and African American Pregnant & Parenting Youth (PPY). Over the past decade I have been working with a program serving PPY at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School, located in Chicago's Humboldt Park community. I conducted research, with the director, that helped establish Proyecto Atabey, an intergenerational and transformational mentorship program for PPY at the school. I have also been conducting Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) that has focused on challenging the stigma that PPY face and promoting advocacy skills.

What do you hope students take away from your class?
I teach qualitative research classes, and I hope that students gain important skills in my courses that they can apply towards their thesis or dissertation research. A goal is that students' experiences conducting hands-on research for their course projects foster an excitement for qualitative inquiry and help them develop an awareness of how research can be used not just to identify/describe a "problem," but to tell stories, and to help improve teaching and enhance resources and conditions, particularly for marginalized communities and populations ... and ultimately to make the world a better place.

What is your favorite campus event?
Commencement. I start to get weepy once the music starts and the students begin marching into the Convocation Center. I serve on a lot of doctoral committees, and love celebrating students' accomplishments and meeting their families. Most of the students I work with are the first in their families to earn an advanced degree, and a number are first-generation college graduates, and their journey to attain their degree has often been filled with challenges and obstacles.

Who has influenced your professional path?
The Puerto Rican/Boricua community of Humboldt Park, Chicago. My work with the Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC), and role as director of one of its programs, The Family Learning Center, a literacy program for young mothers, was what influenced me to attend graduate school in the first place. I was dissatisfied with the programs and policies aimed at young parents/families and inspired by their perspectives and narratives, which didn't square up with much of the negative rhetoric about young mothers. My continued work with grassroots, community-based organizations and youth in Humboldt Park has helped me stay grounded as a researcher, and brought home the notion of communities as intellectual spaces. I owe a great debt to the executive director of the PRCC, Jose Elias Lopez, and his brother Oscar Lopez Rivera, who have served as intellectual and personal mentors to me for the last 25+ years.

What did you want to be when you were growing up? Are you currently doing it? If not, what changed your path?
I have wanted to be a teacher since an early age, and have taught at a number of different levels, working with youth as a high school English teacher for Chicago Public Schools, and children and families as a director of a family literacy program. Although I love working with grad students, I have always envisioned myself working with youth and for the past 8 years, have taught/co-taught a research class for young parents as part of my partnership work with Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School.

Are you a member of or hold a position within a professional organization? If so, what organization? What is the purpose of that organization and how does being part of this organization benefit you in your role at NIU?
I am the secretary of the Board of Directors of Youth Connection Charter School (YCCS), and have served as a board member since 2014. YCCS oversees 19 alternative schools primarily located on the south and west sides of Chicago, largely serving Latinx and African American youth who have been underserved by and unsuccessful in traditional public high schools. My role as a board member has purveyed the opportunity to advocate for policies and programs that can better serve disengaged and marginalized youth, and also allowed for the development of university-community partnerships. More recently, under the leadership of Dean Laurie Elish-Piper, I am overseeing an engaged scholars initiative which will enable COE doctoral students to conduct collaborative research with YCCS staff, schools, and students to address pressing issues schools face. Students are starting work on projects which address culturally-responsive pedagogy, trauma-informed care, and food insecurity, issues that will likely be heightened in this current period.

What community organizations are you involved in?
In addition to teaching/co-teaching a class for Pregnant & Parenting Youth (PPY) at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School, I have served as a panelist for their senior portfolio presentations for over a decade. I regularly attend activities and have been honored to be invited as a guest speaker at a number of graduations. In 2014, I founded Proyecto Atabey, a mentorship program for PPY at the school, which recruited former young parents to provide presentations and serve as individual mentors for student-parents. We also hosted a Mentorship & Advocacy Summit and recently implemented a Pregnant & Parenting Youth Council. A current project is developing a youth-focused resource guide for PPY in school.

What do you do to relax or recharge?
I have been an avid runner for almost 25 years and have run 2 marathons. I am currently training to run 50 miles the week (but not all at once!) of my 50th birthday, later this year. I also greatly enjoy cooking and like to make as much as I can from scratch. More recently, I have tried to recreate favorite dishes from trips to Taiwan — and travel is another way I recharge. I look forward to being able to return to Taiwan, and also travel to Puerto Rico, a frequent and favorite destination.

Associate Professor, Educational Technology, Research and Assessment, College of Education

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