Poverty became personal for Jake Johnson ’03 when he volunteered with the Agros Foundation in Guatemala. “I met individuals living in dire circumstances,” he says. “The poor were no longer abstract and distant — they had names and became close friends and mentors. Working with them has been a profound privilege.”
Jake hopes to do more for the poor after earning a master’s degree in international relations at Universidad del Salvador in Buenos Aires. A Rotary World Peace Fellowship funds his two-year program, which began in February. After graduating, Jake expects to work in community development that embraces social and spiritual issues as well as economics.
At Westmont, Jake majored in engineering physics and enjoyed his studies, but his interests changed during his college years. A semester at Oxford University in England widened his perspective. “I wanted to focus on the liberal arts because I value the concept of broad education,” he says. “I went overseas to challenge myself academically outside of my major. It took a while to get adjusted to a different system of meeting with tutors and studying, and I spent most of my time there in the Bodleian Library.” Jake found its lofty ceilings, classical artwork and centuries-old soot inspiring. “I kept thinking about all the writers and scholars who developed their thinking there.”
A class in microeconomics at Westmont piqued his interest, and he took courses in economic development and world poverty to learn more. He ended up with a minor in economics and business and appreciates that training.
After graduating, Jake spent a winter skiing in Colorado and a summer traveling throughout Europe before returning to Seattle, his hometown. Half-heartedly pursuing engineering jobs, he realized his passions lay elsewhere. So he tutored students and worked as a valet while he considered the next step, finally discovering his direction on a trip with the Agros Foundation.
“Agros promotes holistic community development,” he says. “The organization purchases farmland and sells it to the poor over a period of years. It’s amazing to see how owning land helps people who have suffered unmentionable things regain a sense of well-being and dignity.”
Jake lived in Guatemala for two years documenting Agros’ success, and his interaction with the local people made the time meaningful. “I counseled men and women who suffered during the civil war and helped them think about community development and how they could move forward,” he says. “Studying poverty at Westmont helped a lot, as I learned to think of it as something that involves all aspects of human experience. I then witnessed in Guatemala how that holistic approach can help transform lives.”
At Westmont, Jake developed a passion for investigating, educating himself and pursuing the things that most interest him. “The rational problem-solving skills I learned as a physics student apply to all areas of life,” he says. “The ability to address seemingly unsolvable problems by breaking them down into smaller components until you find a solution is an important tool.
“I want my life to have a positive impact,” he says. “I want to help pro-vide better opportunities for the impoverished because that’s where I believe the gifts I’ve been given can best be utilized.”