Profiles in International Education: Christopher J. Johnstone

by Dr. Jessie Voigts /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture
Nov 12, 2011 / 0 comments

How do you internationalize faculty, students, a department, college, university? It's a question that has definitely been on the minds of educators for decades. It's critical, to increase understanding and collaboration.


Who better to talk about this issue, than Christopher J. Johnstone, Ph.D., Director of International Initiatives and Relations, College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota? I first met Chris when we were both students in the Comparative and International Development Education Program at the University of Minnesota. This is a remarkable program, filled with extraordinary students and faculty. The achievements of these graduate students is nothing short of a global collective.

Chris is changing the face of international education at the University of Minnesota - and around the world. Look here at Wandering Educators for more information on global initiatives at the University of Minnesota - I'm excited!


Christopher J. Johnstone



We caught up with Chris, in between his travels to Uganda, Trinidad and Tobago, and of course, Minnesota, this month. Here's what he had to say...

Please tell us about your background in International Education...

CJ: My first international experience was as an AFS exchange student in Finland. But what set me on track for a career in international education was a volunteer teaching position I had in Ghana after my freshman year in college. In retrospect, I am unsure if I was much help to the school because I had very little teacher training at the time. Through this experience I realized that this is the type of thing that I wanted to do with my life. There is no straight career path in international education, so I have made decisions one by one as I have gone along. For many years I bounced back and forth between the US and international positions, but am full-time in the US with lots of international opportunities.

What led you to this field?

CJ:  A combination of two factors. I have always believed that education has great power in reducing social inequities. My mother is a teacher so I grew up both attending schools and hearing stories about schools in the evening as a kid. I don't think I could escape education as a career path (both of my siblings and five of my seven cousins are doing an education-related field). As I entered my chosen field of special education, I knew that many social injustices existed in the world and that quality education was one way to address those injustices in a sustainable way. At the same time, I have always believed that if people have the opportunity to authentically meet, share time together, and work toward common goals that misunderstandings between cultures can be reduced. This is what led me to international work in the first place. I have been lucky to be able to mix the "international" and the "education" throughout my career.


What advice do you offer to students, to increase their international awareness?

CJ:  Read, examine, experience, and critique. There are myriad ways to get to know another culture without leaving home. Read about international topics as often as possible, and from multiple sources. Then examine the perspectives of the author. We are all ethnocentric, but how does that come through in the author's writing? Then go out and experience the world yourself. John Dewey has provided a powerful framework for how authentic experiences contribute to our learning. Finally, critique yourself. How have your own inadequacies and cultural shortcomings impacted an experience? How can that change next time?


What steps should colleges and universities take to integrate international education into the mainstream, instead of viewing it as a special interest?

CJ:  We are moving toward a "comprehensive internationalization" model in our college. Through this model we are examining the role of international students and scholars in our collegiate community, the necessity of international experience as part of the academic and professional development of our US students, the role of international partnerships in facilitating new opportunities for research and teaching, our reward structure and approach to international research and technical assistance, and how we might improve our distance education efforts around the world.

We are mainstreaming international and global activities in our college so they are not done by a small subset of faculty, staff, and students (as in past times), but a logical extension of all of our work. In higher education the content area (in our case, education, kinesiology, social work, and family social science) is at the center of our work. If we start from that center, it is very easy to see how the work can be internationalized.

WE: International Education (through Study Abroad, cultural exchange, etc.) can change the world. How can we promote these activities and move forward with intercultural knowledge and cultural diplomacy?

CJ:  I think in higher education we need to find the appropriate point of conversation. International education can change the world, but we need to start with very concrete questions. Are there areas of research in which we can work together? Are there places in the world that facilitate content learning? Can a partnership transform our institutions? If we can start at a point of common understanding (about a research question, teaching approach, or new opportunity) we then begin the culture learning process through our shared work. I think in the past international education has gotten marginalized in universities because so much focus was on culture learning. Culture learning should always be happening because of the global world in which we live. I believe the key to internationalizing a university is to start with what a university does best, then find international outlets for those mission-specific activities. 

WE:  What is up next for you?

CJ:  I try to get a little better at what I do every day. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes not. This year my goal is to get more engaged in our international education professional organizations. Our college has very interesting projects around the world. If readers want to learn more about them, they can visit I have some exciting upcoming travel in the works. Next week I am off to Trinidad and Tobago to learn more about technical assistance projects there, and in January I will travel to Indonesia to support new collaborative degree programs we are starting in the ASEAN region in the area of educational leadership.

WE:  Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

CJ:  Thank you for this opportunity and all that your website is doing to connect people in our field.


WE:   Thanks so very much, Chris! We are so very impressed with all of the great work you're doing in International Education!


Click here to see all of our international education profile features, in Profiles in International Education: A Compendium