The making of a Johnston education: 50 years of student-directed learning


Marcus Garcia ’18 was on the verge of graduating, and his graduation review—one of the final requirements before receiving a degree from the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies at the University of Redlands—was packed. He sat on a couch in the Bekins Hall living room, fondly referred to as the Jimmy Room, surrounded by his closest friends. His parents were there. His childhood buddies. His brother, Jon Garcia ’16. Representatives from first-, second-, and third-year classes; mentors; and family from nearby Fontana and out-of-state. He had chosen the faculty and student members of his graduation committee, and, as tradition warranted, invited others to attend to witness the culmination of his journey at Redlands.

The committee was discussing whether Garcia had fulfilled the contract he had entitled “Development of Wellness and Community Empowerment.” But the event was more than that: As a celebration of his graduation, it gave him a chance to look back and reflect on his life at Johnston. There were declarations of love, professions of pride, memories of Marcus’s childhood shared. There were tears, laughter, and jokes.

At the end, Garcia was asked how he wanted to celebrate. He called a little girl—his seven-year-old cousin, Jordyn—up front. He looked her in the eye, and said, “When I was growing up, I never had someone sit me down and tell me how important I was. No one talked to me about the struggles I was going to go through or how to get through those struggles. And you’re not always going to feel pretty or important. But if you can remember no other time, remember this moment, OK? You are beautiful. You’re the greatest, smartest, strongest, and no one can ever take your power from you. And you are the most important person in this room.”

He looked up and continued, “I worked so hard to get to this point, and we all have a Jordyn in our life. How we’re going to celebrate me is by showing someone else how you appreciate them and how you believe in them.”

By then, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. It was a classic Johnston moment.

Located in two buildings on the Redlands campus, the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies was conceived 50 years ago based on the notion that students should have ownership of their education. Students design their own curriculum, creating emphases instead of majors and selecting relevant classes at the Center or within the larger College of Arts and Sciences. Instead of letter grades, students receive narrative evaluations.

In their sophomore year, students create a contract that articulates how they will fulfill their curriculum, with three graduation requirements—depth of field, breadth across the liberal arts, and a cross-cultural experience. A Johnston education asserts not all learning is done in the classroom; for Johnston students, the process of self-governing their residential community is one of these opportunities. Faculty members’ offices are on-site, and, as advisors, they work closely with the students to achieve their goals.

People refer to certain events that happen within Johnston as “classic Johnston moments” because there’s really no better way to define them. Having constructive discussions on anonymous posters around your dorm critiquing white privilege? That’s a Johnston moment. Protesting the appearance of a controversial speaker on campus via a teach-in dance party? That’s a Johnston moment. For the most part, classic Johnston moments are spontaneous learning opportunities.

And that’s something Johnston Center for Integrative Studies students are proud of—they recognize every moment can be a learning opportunity. The Center’s philosophy grows from two ideas: Students should be allowed and even encouraged to take control of their own education, and education is more effective when it integrates students’ living and learning environments.

“The Johnston community has been a great incubator for what we now call the best practices in living and learning communities, where students are invested and engaged with other students to create programming that’s meaningful for them,” says Julie Townsend, director of the Johnston Center.

Making an intentional community

“What I love about the Johnston community is that everyone is intentionally here,” says Sean Dunnington ’19.

As a living and learning community, Johnston is built on teamwork, self-governance, and shared values. Its members live, eat, and study together, and they mutually decide the rules of their living space. On a practical level, this means students, faculty, and other community members meet every Tuesday at 4 p.m. to talk about how to best do so.

At Johnston, students embrace learning inside and outside the classroom, including on the Bekins Hall porch. (Illustration by Paolo Lim)

At Johnston, students embrace learning inside and outside the classroom, including on the Bekins Hall porch. (Illustration by Paolo Lim)

And each year, as new students arrive and seniors graduate, the community changes, and faculty, alumni, and staff determine how to structure their involvement given the students’ interests and passions. “We are always negotiating this process of intentional community,” says Tim Seiber ’04, a Johnston alumnus who is now Johnston associate professor of science and media studies.

Students’ agency over their living situations is an unusual freedom within a campus and helps them learn about life beyond the classroom. U of R Provost Kathy Ogren, a former director of Johnston, says, “You can’t be passive. You have to show up; you have to contribute something. When that happens, you often do get a better outcome because everyone has had a chance to learn together.”

Community life involves day-to-day tasks from creating events, such as open mics and dance parties, to discussing political issues at community meetings. It also involves building collectives; Johnston has a food collective, a sound collective, a literary collective, and a collective that addresses issues of race, equity, and inclusion. The students even have a hand in deciding where the Center’s budget goes: At Johnston community meetings, they determine how much to spend for the annual spring music gathering called BuffaloFest (a.k.a. BuffFest), or whether to fund students’ individual projects.

At these meetings, negotiation is important, but consensus is vital. “Everyone has to agree on what’s decided,” says Townsend. “Even if one person says ‘no,’ you have to reopen the conversation and talk about why that one person didn’t consent.”

Because the community is so tightly knit, students are engaged early and well. Kelly Sandoval ’21, an early member and facilitator of the sound collective, says, “The fact that we get to facilitate as a group of just students says a lot about who we are as a community. Students are empowered to take part in their own educations and what they’re interested in.”

And the commitment to community has an impact on the academic side. Seiber explains, “The thing about Johnston that is awesome is that because all students are treated as individuals, we care for all of them and support them in their future endeavors equally.”

Making a personalized curriculum

For most Johnston freshmen, unlearning 12 years of a structured, passive education is key to their academic experience. The Johnston First-Year Seminar introduces students to class contracts, community practices, Johnston history, and interdisciplinary thinking, acclimatizing them to Johnston-style practices, integrated work, and contract negotiation.

“When students create their own course of study, it’s rigorous because they’re not following a predetermined path,” says Townsend. “They have to justify to a committee why [what they’ve chosen to do]is a solid education.”

“You work day-to-day with a small group of students and core faculty,” says Roya Amirsoleymani ’06, now the artistic director and curator of public engagement for the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art in Portland, Ore. “You produce highly rigorous work with no course prerequisites and lots of political, creative, and community engagement. These things are part of what make for a demanding, high-level experience. We were doing graduate-level work in Johnston.”

Sean Dunnington ’19 discusses his play, Flat Fish, which was chosen from about 300 entries for a staged reading last year at the Theaterlab in Manhattan. (Illustration by Paolo Lim)

Sean Dunnington ’19 discusses his play, Flat Fish, which was chosen from about 300 entries for a staged reading last year at the Theaterlab in Manhattan. (Illustration by Paolo Lim)

In their second year, students complete Sophomore Contract narratives and build lists of classes to engage different modes of learning for their emphases. In their third and fourth years, students work toward fulfilling their contracts with classes in Johnston, throughout the larger College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Redlands, and often through study abroad.

“The freedom to design your own major teaches you how to be responsible and passionate about your education,” says Malie Minton ’20.

How they explore this freedom varies: Students have the opportunity to teach classes or lead seminars. They negotiate contracts with their professors that can also include working within collectives or conducting projects. For example, Dunnington, who has an emphasis in literary analysis, creative process, and playwriting, has contracted to write plays instead of essays in each of his classes.

This freedom to explore their own educations yields self-directed learners. “It’s a very humbling experience, and it also teaches you how to be direct,” Minton says. “Johnston students and faculty believe that you can do whatever you want. You’re given the support you need, but it’s up to you to make that happen.”

And that graduation contract? “After four years at Johnston, the idea is that the student gets to a place where they can be self-reflective, after they’ve learned, progressed, and developed,” Seiber explains. “Hopefully it becomes a lifelong process of becoming a reflective thinker and a community member.”

Making waves

Immediately after it opened its doors, thanks to a $1.8 million endowment from James Graham Johnston in 1966 and curriculum development by Chancellor Presley McCoy, Johnston became Redlands’ hub for the counterculture movement that was sweeping the world. Not only was its student-guided educational structure revolutionary, students connected the power to make educational choices with the counterculture movement.

Johnston students were distinct from their more conservative counterparts at the College of Arts and Sciences. “Currently, the differences between schools and programs at the University are healthy—but back then, it was a war,” says Johnston Center Professor Emeritus Bill McDonald. “It was a profound culture clash.”

The next decade saw changes in leadership and declining enrollment at Johnston, and, in 1979, Johnston became a center within the University of Redlands College of Arts and Sciences.

Throughout these changes, some things at Johnston remained constant. The curriculum structure has remained intact. And Johnston has continued to attract a distinctive kind of learner. “What I end up seeing … is students’ willingness to take risks,” says McDonald. “I think those are just the kind of students we attract.”

At the same time, Johnston’s impact on the University of Redlands as a whole cannot be underestimated. “The practices that developed in Johnston are now woven throughout Redlands as ways to best engage students in their undergraduate educations,” Townsend says. “People who learn differently, who approach education differently, are able to craft something that combines the more traditional components of an education with their unique styles of learning or their educational aspirations.”

Even North Star 2020, University of Redlands’ strategic plan, reflects Johnston’s influence. “We’re bringing diverse students with very different learning experiences through pathways that will make them successful, whether they’re traditional residential students, transfer students, graduate and professional students, veterans, or working students trying to advance their careers,” Ogren explains. “Based on my time at Johnston, I don’t have a notion that a fixed pathway is a superior one. Everyone has a different path, and that’s part of the strategic plan we think about all the time.”

Making lives

And, when thinking about Johnston’s impact, the Johnston alumni themselves are of course front and center.

“I didn’t realize how much of an effect Johnston actually was going to have on the rest of my life,” says Maureen Forys ’93, a book designer and artist based in Northern California. She founded a design collective, Happenstance Type-O-Rama, where they make decisions cooperatively and share profits.

“Giving people an opportunity to define a set of learning goals and then letting them explore those goals doesn’t just teach them the subject matter or skills, it teaches them a kind of metacognition about how to learn,” Ogren says. And that, she adds, is an invaluable set of life skills.

“People graduate from Johnston figuring out how to do something that hasn’t been done before,” says Patricia Karlin-Neumann ’76, the chaplain at Stanford University, who was one of the first women to go to rabbinical school—which she did after graduating from Johnston. What helped, Karlin-Neumann says, was the fact that her mentors believed in her. “My activism was valued; they understood that my education was not just the academic. … My sense of being a path breaker was just the norm at Johnston.”

That could also be why social justice work proliferates at Johnston, Karlin-Neumann says. “People who don’t accept their education as it’s given, don’t accept the world as it is given.”

These days, a liberal arts education includes giving students critical thinking skills and facility with expression. “But the ability to initiate and work through problems is something you’re going to need through life,” Ogren says, “and Johnston teaches that better than any place I’ve ever been to.”

Working through problems is a skill set that translates well for Larry Singer ’79, CEO of Open Up Resources, a nonprofit for students and educators. His path took him from Johnston (with an emphasis in entrepreneurship) into corporate America through jobs at Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard, and Sun Microsystems.

“The freedom I found at Johnston had little to do with the space I was in; it was more about who I became,” he says. “At Johnston, I learned to ask questions, create alliances, and create communities with like-minded people. And within the corporation, it’s amazing how much freedom you can get if you’re able to do those things. While I followed the rules, I never followed the conventions.”

The Campaign for Johnston

As part of the Forever Yours comprehensive campaign, the Johnston community is working to raise $3 million by February 2019. This transformative effort is building a foundation of support for Johnston’s community far beyond its first 50 years.

Foremost in this effort is securing $2.5 million in gifts to endow a new faculty position to be called the Johnston Founders’ Chair in Alternative Education. This additional full-time faculty position will expand the ability to offer student-taught Johnston courses and independent study opportunities. The campaign will also provide critical support for student projects, the Building the Johnston Community Endowment, financial assistance for cross-cultural studies, and student work in community service and activism.

Early leaders of this extraordinary funding effort included founding faculty of Johnston College and many Johnston alumni and friends. Together, they have already committed $2.7 million toward the Campaign for Johnston, including more than $860,000 for the Founders’ Chair in Alternative Education. Please consider how you might be able to bring this incredible effort to a successful conclusion before the 50th anniversary of Johnston.

For information on how you may support the Campaign for Johnston, please contact Ericka Smith, senior philanthropic advisor, at 909-748-8357 or

Read more about the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies:

  1. Johnston: Myths vs. Reality
  2. Johnston: A timeline
  3. Creating the book on Johnston

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