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President Award winners strengthen U-M’s global presence

June 16, 2023

Curiosity. The will to serve. These desires define the paths taken by the 2022 recipients of the University of Michigan’s President’s Award for Distinguished Service in International Education.

For the first time, the University of Michigan recognizes both a faculty member and a staff member for outstanding efforts to advance international education and create an ideal environment in which all students thrive: Timothy R.B. Johnson, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and professor of obstetrics and gynecology, and women’s and gender studies; and Judith Pennywell, director of U-M’s International Center.

“Timothy Johnson has given our students life-changing international experiences while elevating Michigan’s role as a welcoming partner in global collaborations, particularly through his work in Ghana,” said U-M President Mary Sue Coleman. “For Michigan’s international students, Judith Pennywell has been a tireless advocate, supporting them on their journeys to the United States and fostering their well-being when they join our community.

“Both recipients have advanced international education and outreach for our students while also strengthening Michigan’s global presence.”

A Ghana love story

Faculty awardee Timothy Johnson’s commitment and advocacy for international students ignited in 1986 when he traveled to Ghana as part of an initial group of Americans to reestablish relationships in medicine, specifically in obstetrics and gynecology.

“I had an opportunity to give a talk on safe motherhood and it was a transformational moment for me,” Johnson said. “The very first day I was (in Ghana), I went to morning report. The report said they had a busy night and 10 maternal deaths. These were women who died from bleeding since there was no blood bank. Women would have hemorrhages and high blood pressure that they couldn’t control; they had strokes and died. Those were all diseases we could control here.

“They needed people who could train OBGYN health workers to save women’s lives. So I said, ‘I know how to do that; my expertise is training medical students.’”

Thus began a steady, fruitful partnership with colleagues in Ghana that continues after 36 years.

During Johnson’s career at U-M, he has mentored hundreds of undergraduate students, medical students, residents and fellows—in the U.S. and Ghana. Most of his mentees continue his international legacy as faculty, effectively multiplying his impact on global health. More than 50 publications have documented Johnson’s unique program development, bidirectional pedagogical approach and ethical grounding.

For Dee Fenner, chair of the U-M Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Johnson’s conceptual framework of sustained academic partnership has made U-M a role model in Africa.

“Dr. Johnson’s service to global health and his commitment to ideals of trust, sustainability, mutual respect, accountability and leadership laid the groundwork for Michigan’s international education programs,” Fenner said.

The multiplier effect

Global REACH associate director Cheryl Moyer has worked closely with Johnson for nearly 20 years. His encouragement generated her first research project in Ghana in the late 2000s.

“I can safely say I have never met anyone so ready and willing to go out on a limb for trainees he may barely know, all to ensure they have an excellent international educational experience,” Moyer said.

Johnson’s commitment to providing a quality exchange between Michigan and Ghana has never wavered. On average, U-M sends 10 medical students per year to Ghana for a month, with twice as many Ghanaian medical students visiting Michigan.

“This embodied a different approach to global engagement that remains to this day: prioritizing our partners’ needs alongside our own,” Moyer said.

Moyer said that one of the most notable aspects of Johnson’s legacy is his inimitable talent for making connections and creating opportunities for learners at all levels.

“I cannot count the number of times a student has come forward and said, “I would like to do X in Ghana. Is that possible?” she said. “Invariably, Tim begins listing people the student should connect with, sending emails and making phone calls to ensure the student has a foothold and can make it happen, putting his stamp of approval on projects to guarantee their success.”

Johnson completed his residency at the U-M Health System in obstetrics and gynecology in 1979 and said he couldn’t be more grateful to receive this award toward the end of his career.

“I’ve been the luckiest person in the world to be able to do what I do,” he said. “I’ve been able to teach and I’ve been able to train people to become teachers. So this is a story about multiplier effect.”

Student services

Judith Pennywell, who has led the International Center for the past eight years, said her career interests have always been driven by intense curiosity about other cultures, traditions and languages.

“I remember wanting to learn more about people in Latin America after attending my first Spanish classes in grade school,” she said. “I would talk to a kid with a different-sounding last name and want to know the origin of their name. My parents encouraged this curiosity with a great set of encyclopedias and regular trips to the library. I believe a curious mindset is a catalyst for learning and growth.”

For over 25 years, Pennywell has done everything from advising international students and creating global program partnerships to managing international student services and developing cultural programming. Through her work, she has created and facilitated opportunities for students, scholars and faculty to study in the U.S. or to pursue research, teaching and volunteerism overseas.

Her extensive experience in international education has played a vital role in creating a more inclusive campus climate for international students, said Simone Himbeault Taylor, former interim vice president and senior associate vice president for student life.

“Dr. Pennywell is a consummate professional with deep expertise in international student issues and strong administrative skills,” Himbeault Taylor said. “She demonstrates a laser-sharp ability to identify root issues and pursue creative solutions. As a seasoned administrator, she brings her head and heart to her systems-thinking approach, always thinking through enterprise solutions with students at the center of her decision-making.”

U-M International Center

Pennywell’s leadership of the International Center during the COVID-19 pandemic was fundamental to sustaining and advancing international education at Michigan. She advocated for more inclusive and compassionate institutional decision-making, and was able to provide uninterrupted support to students amid immigration issues and other crises, said Jennifer Meyer Schrage, former U-M interim associate vice president.

“Judith has worked closely with her team to ensure that the (International Center) was responsive to numerous emerging and unexpected challenges,” she said.

Pennywell’s office supports some 8,200 international students from 126 countries enrolled at U-M and has occasional engagement with about 1,700 others on optional practical training. Her team works with more than 1,500 scholars and employees on immigration matters and is involved with the recruitment of Peace Corps volunteers and manages the Peace Corps Prep Program.

Outside of U-M, Pennywell is active in NAFSA: Association of International Educators, having served as conference chair for the organization’s 2019 National Conference.

“Judith has been an extraordinary volunteer leader for more than 20 years,” said Dorothea Antonio, NAFSA’s deputy executive director. “Her dedicated service to the association has significantly impacted the field of international education.”

For Pennywell, international education is a powerful mechanism to advance an institution’s mission while helping students become global citizens.

“I’m privileged to work in the field that promotes international engagement, international understanding and global learning,” she said. “I’m fortunate to be on this career path and being recognized for what I do. It’s also a celebration of our team. Together, we work to advance international education around campus in many ways.”