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Chandra Johnson: A black female administrator

Andrew Thagard | Thursday, February 19, 2004

Listening to Chandra Johnson, assistant to the president, talk about her work as she sits behind a large desk in her Main Building office, it’s hard to imagine that this Notre Dame administrator was an undergraduate student herself only a few years ago.Then again, Johnson wasn’t your average Notre Dame student – and she’s not your typical administrator.Johnson is a black Catholic from the West Coast. She lived in Los Angeles for most of her life, where she served as a Master Catechist for the archdiocese and worked for financial institutions in corporate America for 20 years. She married shortly after graduating from high school but has been divorced for the past 18 years. Between her marriage, career and family, Johnson never had the opportunity to attend college.Then in 1992, at her brother’s urging, she began the college application process and saw Notre Dame’s reputation as a top-ranked Catholic university as an attractive option . When she was accepted, a 38-year old Johnson packed her bags and headed to South Bend.The idea of starting college away from her family and friends and at a school halfway across the country was frightening to say the least, according to Johnson.”I left my family in L.A. and I had never lived outside of Los Angeles in 38 years,” she said. “I wasn’t quite sure how I would do in the classroom.”Going from the West Coast and the corporate sphere to the Midwest as a student is not a route that is commonly taken. But Johnson said it was one of the best decisions she ever made. “I really began to see what other people had always seen in me,” she said. “Education opened up a whole new world for me.”Johnson majored in theology with a concentration in African-American Studies and graduated in 1996 with honors. She credits her success in part to support she received from students and faculty.”The students were my greatest allies because they never made me feel like I was different,” she said.Still, Johnson said that she faced some difficulties, particularly inside the classroom. Because of her unique background, professors often struggled to critique her papers and occasionally opted not to make any comments at all. Some of her theology professors, who were accustomed to work from more traditional college-age students, didn’t quite know how to react to a paper written from the perspective of a black woman in her late thirties. Johnson also said that her fellow younger, minority students were not always treated as nicely as she was and that she could often sense tension within the campus community. Because of her unique situation and perspective, minority students often approached her to share their experiences and seek advice. It’s a role that Johnson accepted then and continues to relish today.When she was appointed to her current post in 1998, she found herself in a position to address many of the concerns that current undergraduate students voice. She describes the difference between her time as a student several years ago and today as “night and day,” but still acknowledges that the University has work to do in promoting diversity. “Our students seem to be enjoying a much fuller experience now,” Johnson said. “I can definitely say that students of color are being welcomed genuinely. They hear the recognition for the unique gifts that they bring.”Indeed, since 1992 when Johnson first arrived in South Bend, Notre Dame’s minority student population has increased by nearly 20 percent and the number of minority students in leadership positions continues to rise.Johnson attributes the change in part to a renewed commitment by the University to address the diversity concerns and a greater degree of tolerance and open-mindedness within the current student body. The message now, she said, is for minority students to not only come to Notre Dame but to be themselves when they are at the University.She praised majority students for the progress they’ve made in embracing diversity and compared the Notre Dame of today to the environment within the early Church of accepting gentiles into an organization with a Jewish tradition.”They’re doing it and it’s so wonderful,” she said. “It makes sense. [Diversity] makes everybody better. It makes the University truly Catholic, because it is becoming truly universal.”Despite the progress, Johnson said that she still receives visits to her office from minority students with complaints each week. Johnson believes that such problems generally stem from misunderstandings and she encourages minority students to discuss their problems and find a solution, rather than simply internalizing them.”My job is to give young people the tools to work it out,” she said.Johnson can still relate to some of those complaints. She said that she occasionally feels that her ideas or opinions aren’t valued as strongly or endorsed as readily.”When I express my insight in meetings, it’s rare that it is echoed back to me,” she said. “There is a sense that it isn’t contributing to the common good. But I do it anyway because my heart’s in the right place.”Johnson added that as a top black administrator, she is called upon to deal with issues of race constantly.”It’s difficult consistently addressing race,” she said. “For the most part, when you address race, you’re addressing negative realities of life. At the end of the academic year, it’s almost unbearable.”Johnson, however, said she derives tremendous satisfaction from her job and overcomes her temporary feelings of despair by reflecting on the good that has come out of the past few years. In the future, she would like to see Notre Dame continue to increase recruitment of minority students while maintaining the University’s Catholic character. Johnson is unsure what she will do once University President Father Edward Malloy retires from his position of University president, but she knows that she wants to continue to devote her energies toward promoting diversity. Judging from her life so far, Johnson doesn’t seem likely to shy away from a challenge.”I don’t have a clue what I’ll be doing,” she said. “I’m waiting for it to become clear to me what area I want to use my gifts. I will always be in a role where I will be helping people of color and embracing their insight and value because that’s what I do best.”