Matt Johnson is a lot of things: an advocate, a husband, a one-time graduate of Millersville University, a soon to be two-time graduate of Temple University, and a former contestant on Jeopardy circa 2012. Yes, that last tidbit is true.
While his television appearances are somewhat more limited these days, Johnson now spends his time working with immigrants and refugees who have quite literally just landed in Lancaster County. Johnson, a Lancaster native himself, has a keen interest in creating positive, lasting changes to the place he calls his home.
After graduating from Millersville University in 2004 with a degree in philosophy and English, his post-graduate path is what he describes as, ‘a winding one.’ Fresh out of college, he ran his own tutoring business where he worked with students from the School District of Lancaster. “I then went to [graduate] school at Temple and became a professor at my alma mater (and several other places),” he explains. “[But I] tried to always do community-oriented projects in my spare time, [including a stint working at the mayor’s office as the chief of staff].”
His winding path then led him to Church World Service Lancaster. The organization’s work focuses on several key areas for refugees and immigrants: resettlement, employment and immigration legal services.
In fact, Lancaster, Pennsylvania was dubbed “America’s refugee capital” by the BBC in 2017 because of the large number of refugees the county welcomes each year. This is due in no small part to the services Church World Service Lancaster provides, and Johnson considers himself fortunate to be a part of the work.
“I had always felt there was something special about Lancaster’s place as a refugee hub and felt there was more that I could do to extend that sense of welcoming,” he says. “After acting as emcee for some CWS events and organizing [a visit to Lancaster for Nobel-Prize winning advocate] Malala [Yousafzai], it became more and more clear to me that refugee resettlement was a place where my unique life experience and winding career path might be helpful.”
His role is primarily one of advocacy, but has also described it as a community organizer, “on steroids.” “I’m passionate about lighting the fire of civic engagement,” he says. “Many people who come here as refugees have never been citizens of any country, or if they have, have never been allowed to express their frustrations with government. For some, expressing grievances is why they became refugees in the first place. So being a small part in helping those former refugees access power, demand accountability and work with community partners for a better life is just perfect.” Johnson says he hopes to see more immigrants running for office because of CWS’s work, and he ensures that refugees here have regular contact with elected politicians to make their voices heard.
He also notes that he often encounters students, graduates and friends of Millersville University in his work at Church World Service Lancaster. “I always say that there are very few rooms in this area where important decisions are being made that MU alum[ni] are not at the table,” he explains. “[But] the best part is seeing how many former refugees attend Millersville. The Dean’s List is a who’s who of leaders from the refugee community and some of the best leaders I work with are students or alums of MU. I don’t think a day goes by where I don’ t work with MU students or grads.”
One of those standouts is current MU student Apsara Uprety. She first came to the United States in June of 2011 as a refugee from Nepal. “Programs and organizations like UNICEF and [the International Organization for Migration were] the guides for us to come to the United States,” she explains. “We all wanted a better future, and it was a perfect opportunity to escape the poverty of the refugee camps. For me and my family, we came to the United States because it did not seem like we had any future in Nepal and most of our family had already come here for their own reasons, so we followed.”
After she arrived, she almost immediately came into contact with Church World Service Lancaster. “When we first came to the United States, we had organizations like CWS and Lutheran social services to help us get settled. My family was helped by the Lutheran services, but I was familiar with the CWS as many Nepali people were being helped by them,” she says. “I became connected to CWS [again] later through community friends and Matt Johnson, who was my professor at [Millersville University.]”
Uprety is currently a double major in social work and English education, focusing on teaching English as a second language, and recently had a chance to be a part of a budding journalism program taught by former reporters at CWS.
According to Johnson, the aim of the program, called the Refugee Youth Journalism project, now known as the is to get refugees to tell their stories and give participants a firm handle of the basics of reporting. “The journalism class at CWS showed me that if I dig deeper, I may find answers to questions that I with many other people might have,” says Uprety. “My biggest takeaway was that though it may not be easy to learn and inform without offending someone, you should continue to spread the knowledge. The experience I was able to gain from the journalism class will forever remain with me as I [continue] writing about my culture and background.”
“I am so proud that Millersville University is the institution so many immigrants and refugees flock to,” says Johnson. Education also remains near to Johnson’s heart, and he thinks fondly on his time as a Millersville student. “The thing that always stands out about my time at Millersville was the opportunity to build relationships with professors and fellow students,” he says. “Even in the largest lecture classes, I always had access to professors who took an interest in my academic and professional career. I got the same educational quality of a larger institution, but with the added benefit of personal investment from professors in and outside my major.”
For Johnson, that experience paid off in the end “I don’t remember a single semester where I didn’t get this overwhelming sense of how all the knowledge I was receiving was weaved together for a larger picture of the world and our place within it,” he says.