No place like home: Lehigh professor and family downsize, host events in Sayre Park Village


*View Part 1: The Johnson-McCormicks’ decision to live on Lehigh’s campus and their transition into moving to Sayre ‘B.’

Moving into a residence hall is a major change for anybody, but for the Johnson-McCormicks, it was doubly impactful. They were moving onto a college campus, a significant lifestyle change, and also moving into a space much smaller than they were accustomed to, forcing them to radically downsize.

“We had to give away 90 percent of what we owned,” Johnson said. “Going into such a tiny apartment was really overwhelming; not having a washer or dryer, not having a table to sit at, those things were really overwhelming.”

The transition wasn’t completely inhibitory, however.

“There’s something really liberating about downsizing, which is just fantastic,” McCormick said. “And for anybody who’s ever owned a house before, having the maintenance go away is just awesome.”

“It was overwhelmingly amazing how the students reacted and how quickly we really, really bonded with the students on the campus,” Johnson said. “So it was overwhelmingly challenging and overwhelmingly amazing and enriching all at the same time.”

Since moving in, the Johnson-McCormicks have hosted many successful events in their apartment and have been a visible presence in the Sayre community. At the end of the first week of this semester, the family hosted an open house in their apartment for Sayre residents. Johnson said 80 students attended — more than half of the 150 who live in Sayre.

“Before we moved here, people said to me, ‘If you did something like that, maybe ten kids will show up, students don’t really go to these sorts of things’,” Johnson recounted. “In our first two years, if we held an event like that, we regularly had 40 to 60 kids show up.”

Jennifer Scaia, assistant dean of students and director of residence life, commented on the amount of students that come to Johnson-McCormicks’ house for events.

“The number of students she has coming to her events on a regular basis, when she does open houses and big events, that’s a lot of students,” Scaia said. “There’s something really special about inviting students into her home. I think students are intrigued and fascinated by that as well…it’s the home component of it that makes it so exciting and engaging and a different experience.”

The ‘home component’ the Johnson-McCormicks provide was echoed by other students who had interacted with the family.

“I think having a family live in Sayre gave everyone a sense of home,” said Ariana Browand, ’16, a resident of Sayre last year. “Heather was like a mother figure and it was comforting just to have her in the building.”

“The family brings a piece of home to the residential community, and that’s something that many residents can’t experience while at college,” Jon Merwine, ’14, said

Merwine was Head Gryphon in Sayre last year and attested to the family’s involvement in the Sayre community.

“Heather sat in on our individual meetings with our halls and go(t) to know several students immediately,” Merwine said. “We also had a community dinner featuring the family. It was extremely successful because of how personable and outgoing the family is. The residents loved it and we had a huge turnout.”

Johnson said that the community here on campus is real and strong and is much different than what their family experienced living in the suburbs.

“There’s a certain energy to this, and we really are totally connected to the students here,” Johnson said. “(It) is hard to believe, but it’s totally true.”

Johnson also explained the stronger connection she has to her students within the classroom. She said she always felt relatively in-tune with her students, but that living on campus took that connection to a level only possible by living among them.

“I really just did not understand how busy and involved and engaged and really, really stressed out they are and how seriously they take school,” Johnson said. “So many students are just studying so much and that’s been really interesting for me to see that. I now see, holistically, what their lives are like so much more. I really understand that this (class I teach) is just one class, and that classes are just one part of their lives.”

Johnson said she would rather assign her students less work, but have it be work that they are really invested in. She’s not out to prove her classes are harder or more serious than other classes by killing students with work, but is not making her classes easier, she emphasized.

“I’d rather see them do less, higher-quality (work) than do more busy work,” she said. “I’m giving fewer assignments, but they’re more substantive and higher quality…I’m not watering it down at all; I’m just expecting less quantity, more quality. Instead of four papers, I’ll assign two papers, but I want you to really give me a good paper, and I think they appreciate that. I think they know when it’s busy work.”

Johnson said there can be awkwardness when students she knows from Sayre become students in her class. Liana Mitteldorf, ’16, is a student who met Johnson while living in Sayre and then took a class with her last semester.

“At first I thought it would be awkward,” Mitteldorf said of having a class with Johnson. “I’d always called her Heather, would I have to call her Professor Johnson? But she was super normal, it was a really intimate class but nothing ever felt awkward.”

Delving into the philosophical, Johnson discussed where the line is drawn between her personal and professional lives – if the line is drawn at all.

“There isn’t that separation that there used to be…I’m the professor and the mommy all the time,” she said. “I’m all of me all the time now, which feels, in some ways, completely crazy-making…but, for me, it’s actually grounding and stabilizing, because I am a whole person, and students get to see that but I also get to be that.”

Interviewing Johnson was punctuated by six-year-old Meera asking her mother how to spell words and showing her artwork she made, exhibiting Johnson’s unification of identities – taking time to answer questions as a professor, but continuing to be a mother at the same time.

* Next week: Part 3: Raising children on a college campus and a look at student conduct in Sayre since the Johnson-McCormicks’ arrival.

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