Open to change

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A new career path leads one Concordia alumnus to his calling

Having worked for years as a technical writer and trainer for a telecommunications company, Michael McCurdy found himself reassessing his career when the company decided to downsize. Luckily for countless students in the North Kitsap School District, which is on the north end of the Kitsap peninsula in western Washington State, McCurdy decided to change gears and pursue his interest in teaching – and a master of arts in teaching degree from Concordia University.

Changing course

The year 2003 proved to be a life-changing one for McCurdy. His son Miles was born, and the changes at his workplace meant rethinking his career path. Realizing how much he liked to design instruction, how much he enjoyed teaching, and – thanks to his son – how interested he was in what and how children learn, McCurdy began investigating what it would take to become a certified teacher. Concordia’s MAT program seemed like it would be a great fit.

And a great fit it was! Not only did McCurdy find camaraderie in his tight-knit cohort (many of whom still keep in touch on social media), but he also got the support he needed from professors who were committed to his success. “The positive atmosphere, encouragement, and guidance I received there really started me off on the right path. During that year, just before my graduation, my mother passed away from cancer. Being surrounded by a supportive cohort and understanding instructors helped me immensely during this time.”

Beyond the emotional support, McCurdy received the education and training he needed at Concordia to feel confident in the classroom. “The real-life teaching experiences I encountered during my practicum really allowed me to enter the profession with a clear understanding of the rewarding and challenging professional journey I was embarking on. I was matched up to do my student teaching with two excellent teachers that really inspired and encouraged me along the way.”

Being many things

Photo of Mr. McCurdy's Rules

McCurdy lives and works in the Puget Sound area, a particularly scenic and serene part of the Pacific Northwest. Beyond the abundance of natural beauty, his district has the unique distinction of being the only one in America that includes two different Native American tribes – Suquamish and Port Gamble S’Klallam – within its boundaries. “I love being able to celebrate the diverse and ancient cultural aspects of this area. Being a teacher in a small town, you see people you know everywhere you go, and the community has a deep respect for those of us working with their kids on a daily basis.”

His years of teaching music at Wolfle Elementary School have taught McCurdy “that you need to meet kids where they are and inspire their learning from there. Being honest and genuine with them is a must as kids see right through any adults trying to educate their minds, without also acknowledging their hearts.” Wolfle Elementary is also a high-poverty school, and many students come to the school with myriad challenges that often have nothing to do with academics but must be addressed if any learning is to take place. In such a setting, McCurdy explains, “a teacher often has to be many things besides just a teacher.”

A rewarding career

This year has been another big year for McCurdy. He turned 50, celebrated his tenth year of teaching and, in March, accompanied his fifth-grade music students to Seattle to hear the Seattle Symphony perform the “Wolfle Symphony” – the kids’ collaborative composition that won this year’s Link Up competition (see the video below). “Having the Seattle Symphony play our piece, written by fourth and fifth graders, was certainly a highlight! It happened when I got out of the way and took a chance at letting the kids take the ball and run with it.”

Further affirmation came from the Kitsap County chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma, an international society of women educators. McCurdy is the latest recipient of their Outstanding Educator award. “That was very special to me and gave me confidence that I was doing the right things for kids. Then when I was told I would be receiving the district’s Elementary Teacher of the Year award, it felt like winning the triple crown! It’s still kind of unbelievable to me that all this happened in one year. But now I feel some validation that I can do this really difficult job that doesn’t pay incredibly well and which fewer and fewer people are willing to do. I have a deep sense of satisfaction in my job that comes from knowing it is one of the most important jobs there is.”

Words to live – and teach – by

McCurdy was drawn to Concordia and the teaching profession for their shared focus on service. “Teaching is about paying forward a love of learning that really might be the only thing that can truly transform the world. So many professions are about “getting” and teaching is certainly more about “giving.” Our principal has a wonderful saying that I think about often in regards to my career as a teacher: ‘You don’t need to be the best in the world, but you can always strive to be the best for the world’.”

Photo of Mr. McCurdy's Corollaries

His best advice for future teachers? Fail. “Failure is the best teacher and a person’s response to it dictates the lessons they will learn, or keep not learning over and over, for the rest of their lives. Fear of failure has kept me from success far more than actual failure has. Once you let go of your fear of failing, a whole world of possibilities opens up.”

McCurdy pushes his students to believe in themselves and not to give up. “I’m convinced that the secret is, there really is no secret. Creating something beautiful (like a symphony or a painting or a great story) is very difficult, but it is in the process of meeting difficult challenges where you find out who you are and what you are capable of.”Cross-end-article-symbol

Putting country first

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Concordia HLS grad Heinz Johnson and his family at graduation

Refugee and Concordia grad puts homeland security degree in focus

Growing up in Liberia, a West African country on the Atlantic coast, Heinz Johnson had a passion for studying criminal justice and security. “I took entry-level broadcasting courses after high school with an emphasis on security,” he says. But an ongoing civil war in his country made pursuing a degree in security too dangerous. How did he go from being a refugee fleeing decades of civil unrest to his current role with the Diplomatic Security Uniformed Division at the State Department for the United States? It’s a journey of perseverance, commitment, faith, and heart.

A new world

In the late 1990s, Johnson immigrated to the United States and settled in the Virginia area. His plan was to get a degree in criminal justice. Then came 9/11 and everything changed. “I worked full-time and attended school part-time at my local community college, enrolling in general studies courses that would guide me on the right path for work in the intelligence community, security, or any law enforcement related field,” he explains. But the courses weren’t quite right. “I was nearing the end of my studies at my local community college and I hesitated on where to go next.”

Photo of Heinz Johnson on the Concordia soccer field

The Concordia connection

So how does a refugee from Liberia who settles in Virginia end up in the homeland security program at Concordia University in Portland? Simple. His wife Annette McGee Johnson, a Northwest native, made the suggestion. “It appears they have what you are looking for in your career,” Johnson explains, recalling the conversation with his wife. “Homeland security is a growing discipline with many specialty areas – intelligence, counter-intelligence, FEMA, related courses, and analytical specialties.” Johnson followed up with some online research and quickly learned that Concordia’s homeland security program was exactly what he was looking for. He also learned that several of his in-laws had attended school there. “I requested a visit where I met with professor Scott and received an overview of the program. I was able to transfer my credits from the community college and in the spring of 2014, I started classes.”

Failure taught me to never give up. This comes from a person who was once a refugee fleeing decades of civil unrest. Sacrifices do pay off at the end of the day.

— Heinz Johnson ‘16

A cohort of colleagues

The cohort model of Concordia’s online homeland security program brings together students from across the country who go through the program together. For Johnson, this was a true asset. “I had a great time interacting with students from all over. We shared ideas that came with different perspectives and different ways of solving problems. This helped us come to conclusions that not only helped us pass the class, but also helped us better understand the subject matter by dealing with different scenarios.” Now that he’s graduated and working in the field, Johnson still tries to keep in touch with those from his cohort.

Compassion amid the coursework

As Johnson was completing his homeland security degree, he received word that his brother in Liberia had died during an outbreak of Ebola. “It was a hard time for our family,” he says. “We lost many family members and friends. What was very frustrating about my brother’s passing was that it could not be 100% confirmed by the Ministry of Health or the other NGOs working to combat Ebola and cure affected people. All we heard was hearsay.”

A few months later, Johnson received the amazing news that his brother was alive. “We learned that he did not die, but had symptoms of the virus and was treated.” As he had been taking coursework during this time, he notes that “my professors were very concerned and were always checking up on me which I greatly appreciated.” Johnson also notes how Concordia’s mission of service really resonated with him. “Service plays a significant role in my life. I always see the need to give back and help make sure others are secure.”

Resolute focus for an uncertain world

Photo of Heinz Johnson at graduationJohnson graduated in the spring of 2016 with a Bachelor of Science in Homeland Security – a degree he parlayed into a position in the State Department Diplomatic Security Uniformed Division. “The rewarding part of the job is that I come across people from all walks of life. I perform patrols, see foreign leaders, and interact with members from the intelligence community, Secret Service, and Department of Homeland Security, along with other government agencies. The most challenging part about this industry is that we are in uncertain times. Being highly focused and always being on the alert is key to this job.”Cross-end-article-symbol

All in the family


In 2006 when Concordia first developed a university-wide community engagement strategy, one of the first and deepest partnerships was formed with a dynamic young leader who had a true heart for service.

Charles McGee started the Black Parent Initiative (BPI) and been community partners with Concordia ever since. So when McGee’s brother-in-law – Heinz Johnson – was considering his next educational steps, the Concordia name was first on the list. Johnson soon realized that not only was his wife’s brother a major community partner with the university, but several of his in-laws were Concordia grads. For the McGee/Johnsons, the Cavalier legacy is a family affair.