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A gift from an alumnus will deepen the undergraduate experience for public policy students at the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy, announced Dean Judith Kelley.

Inspired by his own undergraduate experience and continued engagement with Sanford, J.J. Johnson PPS’88 has pledged $375,000 to pilot an enhanced student engagement effort for public policy undergraduates that includes experiential learning opportunities and a new student engagement fellow.

“Experiential learning is part of Sanford’s DNA to prepare students for lives of leadership, civic engagement and public service,” said Kelley. “This gift significantly expands the opportunities for our students and provides increased connection with our alumni.”

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J.J. Johnson
J.J. Johnson PPS'88

The Johnson Family Undergraduate Student Engagement Fund will provide real-world exposure and experiences for undergraduate students like the recent trip to Washington, D.C. for several classes. This spring, Professors Deondra Rose and Manoj Mohanan took a group of public policy students to Washington, D.C. to see policy first hand at the U.S. Capitol and White House, and to meet leaders working in policy.

“Students made connections with policymakers, Duke alumni in D.C., and organizations on the front lines of critical policy debates. This immersive learning opportunity is one of many examples of how Sanford deepens the Duke undergraduate experience and inspires students to make a difference in the world,” said Kelley. “J.J.’s generosity will make more opportunities happen similar to this.”

Johnson knows about the power of experiential learning.  

“As a prospective student, I was drawn to Duke in part for its public policy studies program. My junior year summer internship with the Office of Corporation Counsel Juvenile Division in Washington, D.C. ignited my passion for learning by incorporating both academic and real-world experiences. That summer, I was able to participate and observe the impact of judicial policies that I studied, many so clearly misguided and harmful.  I returned to Duke my senior year with a deeper appreciation for what I was studying and how I could potentially make a difference,” Johnson said.

“My D.C. experience engaged me more fully as a Duke student. I hope this gift ignites the same spark for other Sanford students.”

The Johnson Family Undergraduate Student Engagement Fund will support:

  • a new student engagement fellow position to be a resource in planning and executing incremental co-curricular activities.
  • operations for deeper engagement of the undergraduate students, such as immersive learning trips around policy, programming on campus, alumni and special speakers and expansion of the student ambassador program.

As a member of the Sanford Board of Visitors, Johnson said he has seen continued growth of the school, courses and programs – further reasons he was inspired to give back. Recently, he had the opportunity to speak in Professor Deondra Rose’s two PUBPOL 301 classes and to the Polis Student Committee.

“Deondra Rose is a phenomenal and inspiring teacher, and I was really impressed with her students, who were so interested in the broader world of public policy and in learning about the breadth of opportunities available for them to make a difference. Of course, Dean Kelley's leadership and the priorities she has set for Sanford give me a lot of confidence that this program will connect to the Sanford community and the school’s objectives to benefit students,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the gift has a deep personal connection as well.

“My sister Sandy Morse was an award-winning AP U.S. History teacher who shared my passion for civics and education.  She was constantly learning and sharing her knowledge with her students, and her passion for her subject and for her students deeply inspired them. She died of breast cancer on March 14, 2020 at the age of 55, but she continued to teach until the very last weeks of her life. My work and my gift is in part in honor of her legacy,” Johnson said.

After graduating from law school, Johnson worked more than 30 years for several companies, ultimately leading the development of public policy and advocacy. After a career of working in and around public policy, Johnson said the moment is now to support the future.

“I am proud to have developed bipartisan relationships with serious policymakers, and to have played a productive role in the advancement of good legislation and sound regulation,” he said. “We are in a political moment that requires more collaboration and partnerships, reasonable and broad-based solutions, and good sustainable public policy.”

“My hope is that this gift will support an undergraduate engagement program with real-world exposure and experiences for undergraduate students. I hope students learn more about the entire public policy ecosystem, both the public and private sectors, as well as the importance of consensus building to attain suitable support for policy solutions, improving the prospects of positive long-term results and restoring public confidence in government,” Johnson said. “I made this gift because I hope to inspire and engage students to make a positive difference and improve our world.”

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Meeting with Students at Sanford

Polis hosted J.J. Johnson (’88) to meet with students across Sanford and Duke University including a class visit to Professor Deondra Rose’s PUBPOL301 class and dinner with students.

Polis Story - Class Visit and Dinner
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Meeting Students in D.C.

J.J. Johnson and student Chen Chen at the Sanford Summer Social in May 2023 on the rooftop of Duke in DC. The gift will support undergrad student experiences, such as trips to DC to meet policymakers and alumni.

Duke in DC
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The Sanford Undergraduate Experience

J.J. Johnson with student Maya Miller with the bust of Terry Sanford. Johnson was inspired to pledge support to the school's Strategic Priority of deepening the undergraduate experience.

Sanford Strategic Priorities