Professor Heather Johnson to get students in field this fall.

Professor Heather Johnson encourages students to venture outside of their comfort zone and discover their passions. Photo from uri.edu.

Heather Johnson has held many positions in her 13 years at the University of Rhode Island—professor in four departments, director of Writing Across URI—and yet, the best part of her job has always been in the classroom with students.

She enjoys giving students the opportunity to do hands-on learning. One of the courses she regularly teaches is WRT 305: Travel Writing, a course that gives students an opportunity to get hands-on experience writing in the field.

“I have my students go, walk and travel along the water and explore new places,” Johnson said. “I love it when they come back from those experiences and tell stories about where they’ve been and what they’ve learned.”

The energy and experience of her courses were hard to replicate last year, however, because COVID-19 caused most of her classes to take place over Zoom. She said the most difficult part of this past year was trying to keep her energy up.

“Everyone around me was really struggling with the effects of the pandemic, as we all have been,” Johnson said, “I was trying to be as supportive as I could, which isn’t a complaint, it just seemed to take a lot of energy.”

While she is excited about the return to in-person classes, she thinks many faculty members, herself included, and students are nervous. She emphasized the importance of having patience and empathy with peers as URI returns to a semi-normal experience.

When Johnson is not teaching writing courses, she works as the director of Writing Across URI. The mission of this organization is “creating a culture of writing campus-wide, supporting all members of the URI community,” according to the Writing Across URI website.

Carolyn White, the coordinator of Writing Across URI, has worked closely with Johnson for a number of years. She described Johnson as a “hard worker” and dedicated to the University and her students. 

“Dr. Johnson came up with the idea for the writing award, which we’ve successfully awarded to seven students this past school year,” White said. “It was a great idea and left a great impact on the University.”

Johnson had a piece of advice for incoming students at URI and upperclassmen alike: do something out of your comfort zone.

“I always tell my students that if they leave URI as exactly the same person who arrived at that college four years earlier than either the University has failed them, or they haven’t taken sufficient advantage of what’s available to them,” she said.

She also said that general education courses are crucial to students expanding their breadth of experiences by exposing them to new topics they haven’t considered before.

“Students tend to rush through the general education program and see it as a box to tick off,” Johnson said. “Students should embrace this program and take a class that interests them and is outside of their major to push themselves out of their comfort zones and possibly discover a new passion.”

She also emphasized the importance of getting involved on campus, whether it’s by joining a club, playing a sport or going to on-campus events such as athletic games.

“URI has a tight-knit community where if you put yourself out there. You can walk across the Quad and recognize so many people you know,” Johnson said. “I see former students, colleagues, friends and so many familiar faces just walking around campus. It’s amazing how many people you can meet if you put yourself out there.”

With 13 years spent at URI, Johnson has taken it slow and met many new people. Now, with URI closer to normality but still feeling the effects of the pandemic, she’s getting ready to get back to what she enjoys most.