GREAT GRADUATES 2020: Kristie Johnson

May 7, 2020

Kristie Johnson

Bellarmine University will confer more than 900 degrees this May from bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs. Collectively, our students' accomplishments are immeasurable. They’ve achieved lofty successes and overcome daunting challenges, even before COVID-19 changed the world and pushed campus life totally online. We're celebrating our graduates with stories that highlight their ingenuity and resilience. 

Kristie Johnson, Ph.D. in Leadership in Higher Education 

Kristie Johnson loved her experience in Bellarmine’s Leadership in Higher Education Ph.D. program so much that she only missed one class, and for that, she had a pretty good excuse: She’d just had a baby.  

Kristie was in the inaugural class of the program, which focuses on leadership, social justice and research. She progressed through it while becoming a new mother and holding a fulltime job as director of grants management at Marian University in Indianapolis.       

Kristie said Bellarmine’s doctoral program fulfilled her academic interests while providing the flexibility and support to complete it as a working professional.

“It is really a wonderful program,” she said. “It’s innovative in its approach to leadership, and I really enjoyed just how intentional, accommodating and accessible the professors were.”

Classes for the 60-credit-hour program are held on Friday evenings and Saturdays. Students meet six weekends each semester. Primary coursework is completed in three years, with the dissertation typically completed in the fourth year.

Kristie drove two hours from her home in Indianapolis to Bellarmine every other weekend. She spent her commute listening to audio textbooks and lectures and processing her thoughts and ideas.  

She said she grew particularly close to two other African-American women in the program.

“We formed what we affectionately call the sister circle,” she said. “We hold each other accountable, share words of encouragement and pray for each other.”

Before landing her current position, Kristie earned her bachelor’s degree in Asian studies from Florida State University and her master’s in international development and social change from Clark University in Massachusetts. She served as a Peace Corps volunteer and Fulbright Scholar in China.

She knew she wanted to earn her doctorate and was particularly attracted to the Bellarmine program’s focus on social change.

Her dissertation, which she plans to publish as a book, focuses on foreign-born university presidents. Her own family is Jamaican, and when she conceived of the research topic, immigration was a heated issue in the national media.

"I thought, ‘What about these individuals who have ascended the ladder of leadership from being an international student or a foreign-born faculty member? What are their experiences?’” she said. “That led me to my research topic of looking at how they pull on their culture, how their cultural background has prepared them to lead and influenced their leadership.” 

Kristie hopes to use her doctorate at Marian for developing graduate programs.

It wasn’t always easy, but looking back, she said, being a Ph.D. student at Bellarmine has been a time of personal growth and fulfillment.

“There have been times when I thought, ‘What am I doing? This is so hard,’” she said. “Other times I have so much joy, and I look at it as a blessing. Also, I want to be a role model for my son to say, ‘Mommy can do this.’ It’s hard, and there were dark days, but we were able to get through it.”

At a Glance

Hometown: Fort Myers, Florida 

Major: Ph.D. in Leadership in Higher Education

Activities: Kappa Delta Pi - Education Honor Society

Work experience: Director of Grants Management, Marian University, Indianapolis.

Why Bellarmine? The Ph.D. in Leadership in Higher Education program was innovative in its approach to incorporating social justice and social change throughout the curriculum.

How would you describe your Bellarmine experience? A transformational experience that expanded my understanding of the field of higher education. It also resulted in a deeper understanding of self and our responsibility to civil society, as well as the opportunity to develop lifelong friendships.

Who has made the difference along the way? Dr. Fred Rhodes was instrumental in introducing me to the program and sharing his inspirational vision; Dr. Grant Smith challenged me to think like a scholar and to ask probing questions; Dr. Elizabeth Dinkins introduced me to qualitative research and reminded me of our responsibility as researchers; and Dr. Donald “DJ” Mitchell Jr. demanded excellence throughout the dissertation journey and provided invaluable mentoring opportunities.

What advice would you give to incoming students? Find your passion and know your “why,” as it will sustain you and surround yourself with people who treat you with dignity and respect.


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