No place like home: Sayre House ‘B’ becomes home to Lehigh professor and family

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Most professors seem to exist only within the confines of the classroom. Students see them in class or maybe in office hours but don’t give a second thought about their lives after they leave campus.

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The Johnson family (clockwise from top: Braydon, Prof. Heather Johnson, Kyle, Meera and Owen) play a family game of Uno in their apartment. (Chris Barry/B&W Photo)

Professor Heather Johnson breaks that mold by being the only faculty member to live on campus, integrating full-time her professional life and personal life.

Johnson has been teaching in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology since 2001 and lives in the Sayre Park Village with her husband, Braydon McCormick; twin sons Kyle and Owen, 10; and daughter Meera, 6. The Johnson-McCormicks have lived on campus since 2012.

Johnson said there were two genuine reasons that led her to want to live on campus.

Professionally, she had always been very involved in the lives of her students.

“I became a professor because I love to teach, and I came to Lehigh because it was a place where it really seemed that teaching was genuinely valued…but for me, it was always more than just in the classroom, so in my first couple of years of teaching, I was always going to (my students’) sporting events, their concerts, their recitals, their performances,” she explained.

Becoming a mother, however, meant Johnson had less time to be involved with her students outside of the classroom.

“It became hard for me to justify, after working 60 or 80 hours that week, to then go back to campus on the weekend (for events) and drag my whole family, so I just could not be as involved in the life of the campus and the lives of my students as I had been…I was getting more and more burnt out, less and less gratified with my work life,” she said.

At the same time, Johnson described herself as personally maxed-out.

“My husband and I are a dual-career couple; we both have ambitious careers, three kids, a huge house…it was just impossible for us to do it all,” she said. “I always really wanted to be a very hands-on, involved mother…but I wanted to be an engaged professor, and something had to give. We decided it was going to be the house.”

That was when Johnson had the idea to live on campus. She approached Jennifer Scaia, assistant dean of students and director of residence life, with the idea in 2011.

“There have been other faculty who lived in residence halls,” Scaia said. “The Residential Fellows Program was a different structure – faculty sometimes lived in the buildings, or sometimes they just did dinners and events.”

Taylor House had been Taylor Residential College from 1984 to 2006. In 2011, Rabbi Seth Goren, director of Jewish Life and associate chaplain, began the “Community Taylored For You” program in Taylor, but he was not a professor or on the faculty, making Johnson’s idea distinct.

Johnson was somewhat hesitant to make the suggestion to her husband, although the notion wasn’t foreign to her or McCormick. Their alma mater, Colby College, in Waterville, Maine, had a long history of faculty living on campus, Johnson said.

“The decision was actually really simple,” McCormick said. “As soon as she said it, it was as though a path had cleared open in front of us, and it just was very straightforward…and as long as it was something that Lehigh was interested in, we were ready to go.”

“We really thought a lot about it and put a lot of soul-searching, time, research and energy into making the decision,” Johnson said.

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Professor Heather Johnson reads a book to her daughter Meera in their Sayre ‘B’ apartment. (Chris Barry/B&W Photo)

Their sons, age seven at the time, were also receptive to the idea.

“Kyle and Owen were immediately gung-ho, like, ‘Yes, let’s do this, this is awesome’,” Johnson recalled. “They had loved going to campus for football games and basketball games, they loved coming to work with mummy…they were just 100 percent enthused by it.”

Alternatively, Johnson and McCormick said their family and friends had difficulty understanding why they were making the move.

“People really, really questioned it, and they came up with all kinds of crazy rationale for it,” McCormick said. “The trajectory of the ‘American Dream’ is to go bigger, bigger; the white picket fence needs to get longer and wider and taller, and we’re going the opposite direction, so it’s baffling.”

Once the Johnson-McCormicks decided they would be living on campus, the decision had to be made as to where they would live.

“Sayre was a mutual decision,” Scaia said. “We looked at different spaces, but wanted to support the upperclass environment.”

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know Sayre existed,” Johnson admitted. “I couldn’t believe it existed here, and I knew right away it was perfect.”

Johnson acknowledged the amount of green space as somewhere her children could play, as well as the location relative to the rest of the campus.

“I loved that we would be on the hill; the symbolic nature of that, like having a professor living on the hill – not in a Greek house, but still, up there – to me, that seemed so much more powerful than if we had lived in Campus Square,” she said.

The apartment had to be made ready for the family before they could move in.

“Two renovations were done in the apartment,” Scaia said. “One before they moved in, in summer 2012, and just this past summer. It was expanded to accommodate the size of the family and their commitment to the experience.”

Their apartment now includes a second story and amenities they didn’t have the past two years, including a dining room, an office for Johnson, an extra bathroom and a private laundry room.

Having a true family living space was a factor in the Johnson-McCormicks deciding to stay after their initial two-year program was up.

“We loved (living on campus), but we just couldn’t live in that space,” Johnson said. “It was just a material, special situation. So I said we would stay, but it had to be an appropriate home for a faculty family, and they did it, which is so amazing.”

* Next week: Part 2: how living on campus affected Professor Johnson’s teaching and how her family has affected the Sayre community.  *

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