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.