University of Mississippi

Psychology Professor’s Fulbright Studies in Tanzania

Laura Johnson in Bwindi  Forest, Uganda.

When Laura Johnson returned from her first trip to Africa—a yearlong study in Kenya as a University of Mississippi junior in 1989—the director of study abroad gave her a brochure for the Fulbright Scholar grant and told her she’d need it one day.

That director was right. In January, Johnson, a UM associate professor of psychology, will travel to East Africa as a 2012-2013 Fulbright Scholar to conduct research on youth developmental assets and civic participation among vulnerable youth in Tanzania and Uganda.

“In psychology, about 95 percent of all published research focuses on less than 5 percent of the world’s population,” said Johnson, who has served in the United States Peace Corps and traveled to Uganda as a Fulbright Fellow in 2000 to conduct doctorate research on integrated care for depression.

“I’ve always been interested in marginalized groups that are not on the radar of people in academia, or psychology in particular. Youth living in Africa tend to get ignored, yet there’s so much we can learn. I’m really interested in resilience and strength and how people are able to draw from community, culture and themselves to not just survive but to thrive and contribute to the betterment of society.”

Over nine months, Johnson is to collaborate with national partners to survey 1,200 African youths ages 14 to 17 in five different regions within Tanzania and Uganda. She will also interview older members of the communities to gain cultural knowledge about the best ways to promote civic engagement.

Participants in the youth study will focus on vulnerable youth, such as former child soldiers, adolescents with HIV and street children, including homeless and orphaned youth, Johnson said. The study will help shed light on ways in which culture and context produce unique developmental strengths, and explore the pathways to civic participation.

“A major challenge of the 21st century is how to best mobilize youths’ sense of purpose to work toward peaceful and sustainable societies,” Johnson said. “Contextual challenges in East Africa, such as poverty, disease, environmental degradation and civic conflict, threaten adolescent development and well-being. At the same time, strengths and assets such as cultural values, ethnic identity and community or school supports may contribute to youths thriving, their sense of purpose and their participation in communities.

“In the study, my colleagues and I will explore how internal developmental assets, such as self-efficacy and ecologically based assets, such as supportive parents and safe schools, are related to youth participation and purpose.”

Since her first trip as an undergraduate, Johnson has conducted research in the area multiple times, including through a National Geographic Conservation Trust and several UM internal grants. She also served three years on the American Psychology Association’s Committee on International Relations in Psychology, where she worked to advance psychology as a globally relevant discipline.

“Dr. Johnson has become a widely recognized authority on multiculturalism and diversity,” said Michael Allen, chair of the UM psychology department. “She has carefully nurtured relationships with counterparts in academia in a number of African countries, and this has allowed for important collaborative research. Further experiences abroad will only increase her awareness of relevant issues in understanding not only how our cultures are different but the many ways that they are so similar.”

Johnson, who joined the faculty in 2003, also teaches multicultural psychology and an environmental psychology study abroad course that focuses on culture, ecology and youth development in Tanzania. She is an instructor for the Croft Institute for International Studies, where she conducts workshops to prepare students for the cultural and psychological aspects of international study and research.

“This major award for Dr. Johnson is richly deserved,” said Glenn Hopkins, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “She is an outstanding professor.”

Johnson will travel to Africa with her husband and two children. Her husband and son have visited the continent before and everyone is looking forward to returning, she said.

“It will give me fresh experiences to draw from in my teaching and mentoring,” Johnson said. “It will also give me a new database. I’m really trying to promote my students pursuing international research through Fulbright and other opportunities. There’s a huge movement in psychology to internationalize the curriculum. Hopefully I can get some of my students to come over there.”

Johnson is among approximately 1,100 U.S. faculty and professionals who will travel abroad through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program in 2012-2013. The program, established in 1946, is the flagship international exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and has given about 300,000 students, scholars, teachers, artists and sciences the opportunity to conduct research and exchange ideas in more than 155 countries worldwide.

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Daily Mississippian, June 5, 2012

UM psychology professor Laura Johnson is about to embark on a nine-month adventure, thanks to the grant she received as a 2012-13 Fulbright Scholar. In January, Johnson and her family will travel to East Africa to study how environmental change affects local inhabitants.

Johnson will be based out of Moshi, Tanzania, which is located at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, but will be doing work in Uganda as well. Johnson said she plans to study how the mountain’s melting peak is affecting local residents.

“Girls are having to walk twice as far and spend twice as much time to collect something simple like water,” she said. “I’m interested in youth’s ability to solve these problems in their environment.”

Johnson said she has been working toward this trip for a long time and had to get tenure before she could apply for the grant. She also had to get letters of invitation, so her ties in Tanzania and Uganda proved vital.

In 1989, Johnson travelled to Kenya on a Fulbright grant during her junior year at UM, studying traditional healing techniques for depression. During that trip, she met many colleagues and has nurtured these relationships through study abroad programs.

During her nine-month stay, Johnson hopes to establish a connection between her colleagues in Africa and those in America.

“I want to create a pipeline between American psychology and academics and the psychologist academics in Tanzania and Uganda,” she said. “They’re doing excellent work and nobody knows about it because it’s not published in American journals.”

Johnson said she is pleased to have her family travelling with her. She plans for her son and daughter to attend the Moshi International School, where they will take courses such as Swahili and French and study with other international students. Her husband will do the driving and handle the logistics of the trip.

Although she is traveling to Africa for scholastic purposes, Johnson also has some recreational plans. During the trip, the family will take a safari through the Serengeti Desert, around Lake Victoria and end in Uganda.

Johnson will travel to northern Uganda without her family because the area is prone to violence.

“Whereas before I was primarily located around Kampala and Uganda and the capitals, this time I’m really traveling,” she said. “That’s one of the big pieces of the grant, that I’m sampling from several different regions within each country.”

In addition to studying how environmental degradation affects the area’s inhabitants, Johnson will work with former child soldiers, focusing on the women who are now mothers. In doing so, she hopes to learn how vulnerable children gauge self-worth and develop purpose.