Skip To Main Content

Desktop Menu Container

Mobile Menu Container

La'Nita Johnson

La'Nita Johnson

Education Officer for USAID in Guatemala

La’Nita Johnson ’09, Education Officer for USAID in Guatemala, has dedicated her life to service abroad, despite surviving a profoundly traumatizing terrorist attack in the course of that work. We spoke to her about her career and experiences.

What initially drew you to international aid work?

With service such a huge part of my experience attending Pepperdine University, I struggled when entering my career in the private sector where this topic was not a consistent point of emphasis. So I jumped at the opportunity to serve in a social corporate responsibility volunteer role where I was raising money to build a school in Burkina Faso with buildOn, a non-profit organization based in Chicago, where I was working at the time.

On the last day of our trip following an amazing week serving in a rural Burkinabe village, I unfortunately became a victim of international terrorism. After surviving that, it is safe to say that I had a huge change of heart regarding my personal and professional vocation.

During the attack I had a moment of deep prayer in which I promised God that if I made it out of the attack alive, I would change my career path to education. One of the questions that sat with me following the attack (after finding out that the perpetrators were 20 or younger) was “How can we ensure that youth aren’t choosing terrorism as an option?”

When I got home from the attack, I immediately began looking for opportunities in international education. Throughout that search I kept noticing the requirements for a Master’s degree in the field. Luckily, I stumbled upon the International Training and Education Program (ITEP) at American University. After applying for three national Foreign Service Fellowships, I was awarded the Donald M. Payne International Fellowship, which helped pay for my Master’s degree and led to my career in international development!

Can you describe the scope of your work in Guatemala?

As an education officer, I work with implementing partners who are awardees of grants or contracts (methods of disseminating money), to ensure their compliance with the terms of their award (i.e. are they spending money the way that they say they are, are their programs "technically" sound, doing site visits to monitor and evaluate success of programming, etc.), in addition to providing technical feedback on the ideas and the program itself. Foreign service officers aim to build and nurture relationships with important stakeholders in their respective countries. In my case, I work alongside the country's Ministry of Education, in-country NGO’s, and other government and non-government agencies in the education and sometimes health spaces.

I am also passionate about youth engagement and promoting youth voices. I often look for ways in which to include youth leaders in Guatemala to connect with one another and be agents of change in their country. One of my favorite parts of my role is planning learning events where youth facilitate and share their experiences with international development practitioners.

What was the hardest part about committing to the USAID work in Guatemala after your experience in Burkina Faso?

My parents raised me as a citizen of the world; I began traveling internationally at six years old. By age 22 (at the time of the attack), I had traveled to more than twenty countries, studied abroad in five foreign countries, spoke Spanish and French, and studied Chinese and Portuguese. These international experiences were at the core of who I am.

Thus, one negative experience balanced against all of those other international experiences made it easy to compartmentalize. That is not to say that I was not afraid to travel or to move to a foreign country alone following the terrorist attack. However, I was able to create a strong divide between my once-in-a-lifetime trauma versus the rich, cultural tapestries of other countries.

Did you have any preconceptions about what you would be doing in Guatemala before you left?

Before my exploration of graduate Foreign Service fellowships, I had very little understanding of diplomacy as a career path. When I thought about diplomacy, my beliefs were more aligned with what I now understand are the duties of a Public Diplomacy or Consular Officer with the Department of State, representing the U.S. through cultural affairs events or providing visas to those seeking entry into the U.S. But I never realized the range of technical expertise (i.e. environment, health, democracy and governance, etc.) that influences diplomacy, particularly in developing countries.

I was surprised to learn that foreign service officers (FSOs) often work with the most disenfranchised and underrepresented groups, particularly in rural areas in the countries in which we work. While some might see diplomats as only engaging in high-level political discussions or attending fancy events, a lot of the work we do is to ensure those populations’ voices are heard. I am always happiest when we’re visiting one of our projects, or meeting with youth to hear their success stories.

What is the most difficult part of your work there? What do you find most rewarding?

The most difficult part of living abroad in general for me has been the feeling of isolation from my culture. Like many other FSOs, I of course miss my friends and family. But, being that Georgia is only a three-hour flight away, I am able to assuage that feeling fairly often.

However, growing up in the metro-Atlanta area, with a 51% Black population was a unique experience. I grew up surrounded by Black politicians, lawyers, doctors, and corporate leaders, which gave me the confidence to explore various career paths and interests.

As an African-American diplomat, it is important for me to show Black and brown children that traveling, having an international career, and international immersion experiences are possible if that is the future that they are seeking for themselves. Recognizing the amazing opportunities that I have been given as a result of my socioeconomic background, makes me even more committed to creating an equitable playing field for communities of color to access non-formal and informal education opportunities.

Unfortunately, I don’t always see people that look like me where I am serving. From this longing came my participation in a Black diplomat group here in Guatemala. We have had representation from Haiti, Martinique, Canada, and England. About every month or so, we would get together and share cultural food staples with one another at one of our homes. Connecting with other members of the African diaspora was so rewarding and has been something that’s not only helped my feelings of homesickness, it’s also helped me explore cultures that I might not otherwise have encountered.

What does this work mean to you? Has that perspective changed since you first began working internationally?

Surviving a terrorist attack essentially led to a complete overhaul of my life. When I show up every day to be an international education professional, in the back of my mind, I am always thinking about “How can we make the best decisions for youth that will empower them?”

While my understanding of my role has changed over time, my personal rationale for serving in the role has remained steadfast. Making inclusive spaces for young people’s learning and development will always remain top of mind for me.