May 08, 2024

Spencer Johnson ’24 awarded Fulbright to teach in Argentina

By Vicki-Ann Downing

After combining a major in English with minors in political science and Black studies, Spencer Johnson ’24 will head to Argentina next year to teach English as a cultural ambassador for the Fulbright Program, the flagship international exchange program of the U.S. government.

Johnson, from Lawrenceville Township, New Jersey, chose to apply for a placement in Argentina because the country’s political turmoil, economic difficulties, and racial climate fascinate him — and because he doesn’t know anyone who has been there.

“I applied while the election cycle was still happening,” Johnson said. “I talked about being there as a political science minor with contentious economic debate, and as a Black studies minor who can experience the very small Afro-descended population.”

In his Fulbright application, Johnson wrote, “I am compelled to uncover what fabrics hold Argentina together in times of high inflation and human rights abuse. With a background in political science and Black studies, I yearn to probe the social and racial dynamics of the small percentage of African-descended people in Argentina.”

Darra Mulderry, Ph.D., associate director of the Center for Engaged Learning and director of national and international fellowships and scholarships, said Johnson will be a wonderful teacher and cultural ambassador for young adult students.

“Spencer’s excellent academic work in English and his experience tutoring his fellow undergraduates in writing, plus his Spanish-language proficiency, converged to made him a top contender for the ETA in Argentina,” Mulderry said. “The additional global social and political perspective he has gained from his studies in political science and Black studies enhanced his already superb application. I am thrilled that Fulbright Argentina offered the grant to Spencer.”

Spencer Johnson '24 will teach English to young adults in Argentina through the Fulbright Program.
Spencer Johnson ’24 will teach English to young adults in Argentina through the Fulbright Program.

Johnson’s broad academic interests presented a challenge when he arrived at Providence College four years ago to begin his studies in the Honors Program. He considered a major in political science but felt “predisposed” to English, hesitating only because it wasn’t his best subject in high school. He is pleased with his decision.

“I was meant to write,” Johnson said. “In high school and in college, the English department felt like my personal board room. The entire English department here are unofficial advisors of mine, my cheerleaders. It’s felt very natural.”

Johnson will graduate summa cum laude. During the Academic Awards Ceremony, he will receive the Paul van K. Thomson Award, given to students who show excellence in English over four years. The award is named for Rev. Paul van K. Thomson ’86Hon., the first director of the Honors Program and a founder of the Development of Western Civilization Program.

He also will receive the Mary McLeod Bethune Award, named for the civil rights activist and presented to a Black studies major who contributes to African and African American research and intellectual discourse.

Johnson combined his academic interests in his honors thesis, which applies Freud’s psychology and philosophy to five horror novels he read last summer: Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Shining, and Silence of the Lambs. He also read a 1,200-page compilation of Freud readings. Johnson’s thesis advisor is Alexander Moffett, Ph.D., associate professor of English.

“I chose the topic because I like being scared, to be honest,” Johnson said. “Strictly speaking, all the books are entertaining, though Freud was tough. My project is very psychological in nature. These aren’t books that make you jump scared. They aren’t intended to creep you out.”

Johnson enjoyed applying Freud’s concept of doubling — the visual representation of the darker, suppressed parts of the personality that humans deny — to the characters. In some instances, such as Jekyll and Hyde and Dracula, it was a physical split. In others, such as Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, the duality was less obvious.

“Elements of horror come about when you experience something, and it calls to mind a prior experience that reemerges in an uncomfortable way for you,” Johnson said.

Johnson, an identical triplet, developed the idea for the project while brainstorming with his brothers. One brother, Myles, also will graduate summa cum laude as a member of PC’s Honors Program; the other, Jordan will graduate from Princeton University.

The Johnson brothers spent their high school years living away at boarding school. For Spencer, it was St. Andrew’s School in Middletown, Delaware, which emphasized academic achievement and the importance of community. In 2018, after his sophomore year, Johnson joined his brothers on a tour of New England colleges. PC resonated with him.

“I liked how the community felt here,” Johnson said. “I wanted to be in an environment that would not limit my world view. Something I didn’t realize the value of at the time was community. There’s an emphasis here on buying into that. I didn’t realize how much I needed it until I got here.”

Johnson became an integral part of the PC community. Since sophomore year, he has been a member of the Board of Programmers, the central group that plans social activities for students, and was treasurer this year, with Myles as president. He was a member of the Board of Multicultural Student Affairs, wrote for the student newspaper, The Cowl, and served on the Afro-American executive board for two years. He also found time to work as a paid tutor in the Writing Center and in the Black studies office.

Planning programming for students was fulfilling, Johnson said.

“It seems the campus enjoys what we do,” he said.

Johnson will begin his Fulbright term in Argentina in February 2025 and will remain until November. He will teach English to college students preparing to be teachers. He is expected to understand intermediate Spanish but has set a higher goal of proficiency because he will be working with an older population. He plans to spend the time after graduation building his Spanish skills and working to save money to pay for extras during his stay.

When teaching, he plans to draw on his experience as a Writing Center tutor and his observations of ESL circles offered in the public library near his home in New Jersey. He began attending them last summer at Mulderry’s recommendation.

For his understanding of the social and political climate, he will draw on what he learned in a course, Afro-Latinidades: Identities, Expressions, Resistance, taught by Eva Michelle Wheeler, Ph.D., associate professor of Spanish and of Black studies.

Johnson would like to attend graduate school to study for a Ph.D. so that he can teach at the college level. Cristina Rodriguez, Ph.D., associate professor of English, and Tuire Valkeakari, Ph.D., professor of English, have suggested he consider dual programs combining English with his other interests, such as African American studies, media studies, history, or politics.

Johnson said he is “very proudly from central Jersey.” He has lived on campus with Myles and other friends all four years, though he admits “our room doesn’t see that much of us.”

Going to Argentina means being away from his brothers, but Johnson said he is fine with that.

“Our mom was a really good influence,” Johnson said. “She taught us confidence and what we were capable of without the pressure. For us, it’s just doing what we do. I have very talented siblings, and because of DNA, I know that I can do anything they can do. We are the best competitors, but we never put ourselves above each other.

“My journey’s my own journey,” he said.

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