In a Time of Quarantine & Protests, New GSC President Wants to Keep Students Connected
NOT LONG AGO, Center for Information Systems & Technology (CISAT) doctoral student Frederick Johnson kept a secret from his family. When he moved to Southern California prior to receiving a master’s degree at Boston University, he didn’t continue his academic journey right away.
Instead, he took a break from corporate America and became an actor. He spent a few years working in Sacramento, San Francisco, and in Hollywood, picking up roles as an extra and bit player on movies and popular television series, including Grey’s Anatomy. He eventually joined the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) in 2009.
He was exploring an unfamiliar world, so he didn’t tell anyone about it—not until a family member who was watching the suspense series Bones spotted Johnson in one of the scenes.
His secret was over.
“My friends and family were really surprised that I would even do that kind of thing,” Johnson said, chuckling. “I didn’t ever expect to do it, either, but it was a time in my life when I was having fun and wanted to try something different. I wanted to be open to new things. That’s how you learn.”
That same attitude has been true for Johnson at CGU. A doctoral student in the university’s Center for Information Systems & Technology, Johnson recently took on another unexpected role—not acting this time—as president of the Graduate Student Council (GSC) for the 2020-2021 academic year.
Johnson’s life is busy, but he’ll find time “because this is something I really want to do.”
With an already busy life as a successful IT consultant and father of young children, the obvious question has to be, “Do you even have time to be GSC president now?”
“I’ll find the time,” he said, “because this is something I really want to do. Some of my CISAT professors and colleagues kept suggesting that I put my name in for consideration. What really interested me was that they said it would give me a chance to work on some of the new innovative ideas that President Jessup is interested in. I love that stuff. That’s what I’ve spent much of my career working on.”
Like ‘Sitting in the UN’
Johnson enrolled at CGU in 2018 with 20-plus years of management experience as a senior manager and IT professional with expertise in the manufacturing sector.
Johnson grew up in a gritty manufacturing town in southeastern Wisconsin. Manufacturing’s in his blood, he said. He went from throwing rocks at coal trains running along Lake Michigan as a kid to taking on big, lucrative IT management positions with various fortune-fifty companies before settling in Southern California.
After Boston University, Johnson could’ve gone anywhere to continue his graduate studies, but he was interested in CGU’s program for two reasons: location and flexibility. He said he was attracted to Southern California because his mother and other close family friends relocated here and because the region is perfect for someone with his background.
“Southern California is amazing,” he said. “It’s a goldmine for manufacturing IT professionals.”
He also chose CGU because the school supports working professionals, and he liked being able to keep consulting and support his family—wife Felicia and two young daughters—while pursuing his degree.
Only a few programs allowed for that kind of flexibility, he said, but none of them had the vibe and reputation that CGU has. Still, it wasn’t a total slam dunk for Johnson. Even after he enrolled, he wasn’t sure CGU was right for him.
“I wasn’t sold on it, not at first, I’ll admit that,” he said, “but my attitude changed when I walked into the classroom.”
The course he was taking was 501A: Intro to Research Methods with Professors Lorne Olfman, who is CISAT director, and Wallace Chipidza, newly arrived from Baylor University in Texas. While Olfman kept the class on course with a steady hand, Chipidza introduced ideas and cutting-edge innovations that Johnson loved.
The other factor that impressed him was the diversity of his classmates. He wasn’t expecting so much, he said.
“I’m telling you it couldn’t have been a more widely diverse group of students,” he said. “I loved it. It felt like I was sitting in the UN.”
Diversity mattered to Johnson because he said too many students lack a global perspective that is critical to job performance.
“I wanted a program that values the differences in people, that values the international experience of culture, race, gender, and sexuality. I wanted a place where people are free to be who they are and bring their whole self to their education,” he said.
Growing up in southeastern Wisconsin, Johnson didn’t have access to a global perspective—and he made plenty of mistakes early in his professional career because of that.
“I started working for multinational organizations and in the beginning found myself struggling hard,” he said. “I had a hard time understanding other people. I didn’t even know what “kosher” or “halal” meant, or how women were treated in different cultures, and I made a bunch of mistakes because of things like that.”
These experiences affected how he understood an education.
“I think I realized that if I kept going with my education, I wanted to be somewhere that appreciates diversity and the international experience,” he said. “I needed to keep exercising that muscle.”
That doesn’t mean that Johnson spent his childhood in a bubble.
When he was 8, Johnson’s mother married Duane Houf, a white man whose family owned a Holstein dairy in Wausau, WI. Johnson and his younger brother spent summers at their stepfamily’s home—hunting, fishing, riding ATVs, playing with local kids, and enjoying the kinds of experiences that make for a great childhood.
As ideal as it sounds, Johnson said he was still aware of subtle differences determined by the color of his skin.
Sometimes he couldn’t put that awareness into words. It was just a feeling. He described how it felt when his step-grandmother took his hand and entered a store with him. While in the store, he realized something was different: “I was probably the only black kid within 70 or 80 miles,” he said. “People weren’t used to someone like me.”
At home, he and his siblings noticed differences, too. Every family fights—and extended ones are no exception. Johnson said there were good times and bad times, and his stepfather’s family wasn’t immune to negative racial attitudes. Sometimes Johnson and his siblings bore the brunt of it.
Fighting back was the obvious response, he said, but it never solves anything.
“You just keep the cycle of the oppressors and the oppressed going,” he said. “You have to deflect and cut through it. That’s what happened in our family. My stepfather’s family had to want to understand us and we had to want to understand them. It took time, but it happened. It took empathy. Empathy is the bridge to understanding. Period.”
“We had to use empathy to find our way. Society is going to have to go through it, too. That’s how you break the cycle.”
As he looks at the world today, Johnson says that this is especially true of the protests and turmoil across the nation and the world in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police. The pandemic—and the quarantine—hit the pause button on the world economy; when it did, he said, it caused more people to stop and take notice of the kinds of societal injustice and brutality that have always been out there, but that most people were just too busy to notice.
“To see a black man killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck … more people see now that there is a problem and that it has to change. And it’s going to be really painful and difficult,” he said. “We went through it in my family, and we had to use empathy to find our way. Society is going to have to go through it, too. That’s how you break the cycle. That’s the only way.”
Quarantine, Protests & Beyond
The quarantine, and how it introduced remote learning—how it’s disrupted the way business is conducted for so many people—hasn’t been disruptive for Johnson. He’s been working remotely for eight years, he said.
He brings his expertise with digital communications to the role of GSC president, succeeding Drucker student Kunaal Kapoor.
“Kunaal is a good person and has done a really good job,” he said. “He’s a very thorough person and he’s been very welcoming to me.”
While Kapoor oversaw the GSC in the earliest days of the transition, Johnson will be in that role for the rest of the quarantine—whenever it ends.
The GSC constitution needs an upgrade, he says.
Among the many issues on his presidential to-do list, the pandemic and the protests have prompted Johnson and his GSC colleagues to closely examine the GSC constitution and get permission from the university’s administration to update it in several ways.
Not only does Johnson say the constitution has dated language about attendance, voting, and various policies that are no longer relevant now that much of the world is working remotely, he also said that his fellow officers are looking closely to make sure the constitution doesn’t condone systemic racism and that it affirms the university’s mission of embracing diversity.
“We’re working hard on this,” he said. “It needs to be upgraded and updated for our time, given that things are virtual, given that there’s a diversity issue involved.”
Johnson is also concerned about supporting students who are feeling isolated and facing difficult decisions because of quarantine—especially international students who may be confused by changing travel and visa situations.
“I don’t want students to make decisions based on guesses,” he said. Instead, he and the GSC are planning more outreach in the weeks and months ahead to help these students get help from the Office of the Dean of Students.
“We need to boost the connections between our students and the university, and there are plenty of platforms and vehicles to help us do that,” he said. “It’s not enough to just look at the student community at large, either; I want to think about all those subsets that might be facing different challenges.”
While many look to the future with concerns for the uncertainty, Johnson is optimistic. He sees opportunities for growth and understanding.
“I want my colleagues and fellow students to realize and accept that our world has changed, things are not going back to the way they used to be,” he said. “Change is always going to be there.”
That said, Johnson said he doesn’t want CGU students to feel that they are lost and on their own in these changes.
“They’ve got us to help them,” he said. “My whole career has been spent on working out solutions and coordinating teams all over the world. I want to use what I’ve learned so that our GSC can help students better deal with what’s happening now.”
His advice to them? Be active in their communications.
“Reach out to the administration and tell them your situation and exactly what you need,” he said. “If you don’t know who to contact, contact the GSC and we’ll help you work that out. Let your GSC know what’s going on. I can tell you that your GSC is not going to just sit there and let students feel lost. That’s not going to happen – at least, not on my watch”
- To learn more about CGU’s Graduate Student Council, visit here.