Alumnus Is Now CEO of a Harlem Nonprofit

September 7, 2022

Michael G. Johnson reflects on how his Graduate Center Political Science master’s degree shaped his career.

Michael Johnson HEAF
Michael G. Johnson (M.A. ’09, Political Science) is the new president and CEO of Harlem Educational Activities Fund. (Photo courtesy of Michel G. Johnson)

When Michael G. Johnson (M.A. ’09, Political Science) was a master’s student at the Graduate Center, he simultaneously worked for Cory Booker, then mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and his administration. 

“I had an important role to execute change to help Newark communities thrive,” Johnson said. “There was total alignment between my coursework and the lectures I attended and my position in Newark.”

In August, after leadership roles in government, corporate philanthropy, and community development, Johnson became the president and CEO of Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF), which provides college and career preparation programs to New York City public school students from underserved communities. The role marks a turn into the education sector and follows years of teaching at the Graduate Center and the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. 

In a recent interview, Johnson reflected on how his Graduate Center Political Science master’s degree influenced his career and led to his new job. 

Learn More About the M.A. Program in Political Science

GC: What was your experience at the Graduate Center like? 

Johnson: I loved my time at the CUNY Graduate Center, both as a student and then as faculty. I reflect upon it as a time devoted toward my own path, toward learning more about myself and my aspirations — away from my day-to-day work. It can be challenging juggling a career, family, life, and returning to school. But for me, even when I was tired and stressed after a day’s work, walking into the halls of the Graduate Center felt like a welcome escape. It was a space dedicated to learning, surrounded by classmates and faculty who wanted to collaborate and embrace new ideas. It was energizing. Looking back, I see how the Graduate Center was really a microcosm of New York City. People from different careers, different cultures and backgrounds, all aligned on a similar journey toward knowledge. We formed our own unit, like a family outside of home and work. Being surrounded by other career-by-day, student-by-night individuals at the CUNY Graduate Center was certainly unique, and a different experience from full-time master’s programs where students focus solely on the course material. 

The more I think about it, the more my graduate experience at the CUNY Graduate Center is similar to the HEAF experience I am looking forward to cultivating. HEAF students come from across NYC, from different middle and high schools. They don’t know each other when they get started, but they are all on our campus with a similar goal: academic enrichment, personal development, college prep (and acceptance, and success!), and successful careers. I’ve already seen that after just a short period of time these students who start out as strangers quickly become like family to one another.

I definitely want to give a shout-out to my mentor and champion, Distinguished Professor John Mollenkopf. He’s advised me, advocated for me, and been the perfect combination of listener and truth-sayer. He’s connected me to people throughout my career who provided insights and opportunities, and kept me connected to CUNY at every turn. To me, John embodies the CUNY Graduate Center experience. He got me started teaching too, which ultimately led me down the path to my new role at HEAF.

I can say unequivocally that my CUNY master’s in Political Science gave me an edge, an understanding of the rudiments of politics and policy and how it ingrains in the work. —Michael G. Johnson 

GC: How has your M.A. in Political Science from the Graduate Center helped you in your career? 

Johnson: Almost immediately, I applied the practices and theories I was learning about the operations of urban communities to my day-to-day professional role. Our program took a critical look at politics, power, and how to build a framework for successful policy. It was invigorating.

Career-wise, maybe I didn’t need to pick up a second master’s (following my Master of City Planning from MIT), but I can say unequivocally that my CUNY master’s in Political Science gave me an edge, an understanding of the rudiments of politics and policy and how it ingrains in the work. I really honed my ability to connect with constituents, people of influence, our city and elected officials, educators, and more because of the mindset shift I acquired through the Political Science program. It also helped me sharpen my understanding not just of politics and urban policy broadly, but specifically (and critical to me and my career) the politics of New York City. 

GC: What has your experience as an adjunct professor at CUNY been like?

Johnson: I’ve taught everything and anything involving urban issues. It’s been an amazing, rewarding experience. Every year was different: new students, new ideas, and incredible dedication. I’m still in touch with so many of my past students. I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have had these experiences, and I think my time teaching at CUNY ignited my passion for education that is fair and equitable, which is why settling into HEAF and helping students access opportunities to set them on a path for future success is the right next step for me.

GC: You’ve had several leadership roles in economic development, corporate philanthropy, and public administration. What have been your keys to success? And what advice do you have for graduate students who aspire to lead in any of these areas? 

Johnson: I think the key to success is being open to exploring new opportunities and taking new risks. The master’s degree itself is foundational. It gives you confidence and purpose, but it shouldn’t necessarily define you or put you in a box. My success across different industries and roles has always been based on taking risks, being willing to leave my comfort zone and jump into new sectors, for example.

Your graduate studies should embolden you to say, “I can do anything.” With the evolution of work and career paths these days, you never know what you might discover if you are willing to try something unknown to you.

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