Resident assistant and frat brother are not usually labels that describe one person. Nor are champion power lifter and wallaroo-rehabilitating environmentalist – but these activities comprise senior Luke Johnson’s time. It is difficult to frame the Oneonta, N.Y. native into a particular camp or stereotype. The once physics, then anthropology and now geography major has kept an eye toward aid work in the Global South throughout college.
“When I get out of here, I want to do some kind of general development work where I can somehow help people, but I didn’t really know what that meant for a while,” he said. “After finishing my second year here, I was looking for a mix-up.”
Following his sophomore year, Johnson pursued the University of Albany’s program in Tanzania through Global Service Corps, a California-based service learning nonprofit organization. The semester-long project gave him the opportunity to hold workshops on reproductive health awareness, agriculture and nutrition.
“We would travel Monday through Friday and go to different villages out in the middle of nowhere. For some, I was the first white person that they saw,” he said.
Tanzania, an “officially” English and Swahili-speaking country on the coast of southeast Africa, is comprised of a diverse cultural and linguistic heritage, something that Johnson seemed unencumbered by.
“I had to get people to believe that I knew about HIV/AIDS or agriculture … You learn more about the misconceptions that there are with HIV/AIDS. Theoretically we have an expert with us through the process – that didn’t always happen – and a translator. That didn’t always happen, either, but that made it fun,” Johnson said.
Tribes that didn’t speak Swahili needed two translators: one to translate English to Swahili and one to translate Swahili to the indigenous language.
“At that point, nothing I am saying is getting across,” he said. “It was always more about using information in context and knowing how to address the situation.”
Constant traveling left little access to communication, making it difficult for Johnson to prepare for the upcoming semester.
“When I applied for the RA position, I had missed emails because I couldn’t get my [Internet] access to work … I get an email that said if I don’t make a call to have an interview I would be disqualified,” he said. “I got that the day I was leaving for a village.”
“We get there – three hours in the middle of nowhere. There are giraffes crossing the roads and there’s no service,” he said. “We were right by this mountain and I was thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll get reception up there.’ I took my friend Allie and for like two [or] three hours we hiked the mountain. At the top I got like one bar of service and I made the call.”
Returning to the United States around Christmas time, “at the height of capitalism,” he experienced reverse culture shock, readjusting to the disparate conditions between nations and more introverted social protocol in America.
At Geneseo, Johnson hit the campus running, getting the RA position he had applied for and reconnecting with Zeta Beta Xi, the local fraternity he pledged the semester before studying abroad.
“There are certain things you can do in college that should be exclusive,” he said. “It wasn’t a sudden realization, but I realized how much you can do in four years and how much you can see in four years – how if you do a lot of things, even if they seem contradictory or if they seem very different, they help [you] … see what you are doing in a new light.”