George Johnson ’65 counts his time at Augsburg as “the days of Courtland Agre.” In those days, Johnson was on a mission to pursue chemistry.
Johnson came to Augsburg determined to do something good with his life, and for the cum laude chemistry graduate from Annandale, Minn., science was the path to that goal. He remembers the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood as a dicier place than the small town where he grew up, and his urban education was eye-opening. The community work he saw happening on and around campus struck a chord with Johnson, who, growing up, was eager to help people. He pursued a career as a research scientist to do what he could to help better lives.
These days, thanks to a mission of another kind, he keeps up with Pakistani English-language newspapers, and has a new perspective on a world he knew nothing about six years ago. He came to know more—and to teach, another thing he’d never done before—when his church in Bethesda, Bradley Hills Presbyterian, connected Johnson and his wife, Leslye, with Forman Christian College University in Lahore, Pakistan.
In January of this year, he helped organize a workshop on chemical pharmacology in Lahore, Pakistan, after he and Leslye spent the past three-and-a-half years teaching in the sciences, from undergraduates to PhD students.
Both hold PhDs in biochemistry, and though they’d never taught before, that didn’t deter the couple who saw their mission trip there as an opportunity to learn about the world as it really is, through direct engagement.
Road to Lahore
After spending more than 35 years at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Maryland, where he worked as a laboratory investigator and as a research grant manager in drug discovery and development, Johnson and Leslye, also a career research scientist, were ready for a new adventure.
They weren’t looking for a cruise.
The seeds for the Johnsons’ quest for exploration and understanding began early. As young parents, once their two children were old enough to join, they began to travel with a purpose. They went to Costa Rica, and then discovered service trips through Habitat Global Village—going to El Salvador not long after the civil war, and helping build housing. Living and working on an equal level with local people allowed them to see a whole new perspective. They also engaged in Habitat service projects in Poland and Uganda. The whole family was changed by each experience abroad.
After retiring, the couple learned about Forman Christian College through adult education at their church. They saw their expertise in the sciences and their retirement as a chance to do something exciting and to learn more.
Before committing to teaching, they visited the college for a week. They weren’t sure whether the teaching effort would last three weeks or three years. They were open to possibilities, but didn’t know what value they would have, having never taught before.
Learning in a melting pot
A year later, they returned to Pakistan and realized they had a lot of learning to do. Not only did they have to adapt to local life and culture, but also with the academic subjects. Johnson began teaching graduate students in biochemistry – a subject he hadn’t thought about since graduate school. He also taught chemical pharmacology. Leslye developed an immunology course on campus and taught medical biotechnology.
The learning curve for the first semester was steep and rough. “The first time we returned home for the summer, we wanted to kiss the ground,” he says. Life in the USA is much more appreciated. Sometimes, Johnson says, the bigger cultural shock can be when you return to your home country.
In all their travels they noticed that people in developing countries seemed happy with what they have, while Americans so often seem unhappy with what they don’t have.
They realized the gift of seeing life in a different world. “If this world is going to survive, we have to learn to understand each other,” Johnson says.
They were in the midst of a life-changing experience.
The school is unusual in Pakistan in its emphasis on the liberal arts, and it is also an oasis of tolerance, Johnson says. It is a kind of melting pot for students from all backgrounds, the majority of whom are Muslim, but also Christian, rich and poor, male and female, representing minority and majority groups from all parts of the country. Coming to Forman was, for many, their first chance to interact with different groups, and to see how similar their common issues and struggles really were.
Their church, Bradley Hills, created an endowment for female students at the college that awards scholarships for about eight Christian and Muslim women a year. The Johnsons hosted scholarship luncheons at their campus residence in Lahore, and served an American-style feast—with hamburgers and ice cream as a highlight.
Getting out there
The Johnsons went to Lahore to help the college and to learn about the world, and in the end, by hosting students at their home and spending time with them at school, they found themselves learning as much about themselves.
Johnson encourages students and alumni to visit other countries, and to experience life there on one’s own. “There are things to do other than travel around the world,” he says. “Remove yourself from your comfort zone. Get out of your box and do something different. What you learn could be astounding.”
After returning from Pakistan in January, 2014, they were interviewed in a video for their church about their experiences. Soon after, they moved to Portland, Oregon, to be closer to their children and grandchildren.
For the Johnsons, the adventure isn’t over. What’s next?
Johnson is willing to communicate with anyone interested in Pakistan and service projects “outside the box.” Find him at email@example.com.