Sociology chair determined to help open worldviews, spark effective change
Years before the awards and her chair appointment, Jennifer Johnson couldn’t decide on a major.
As an undergraduate, she began pursuing a business degree. Then sociology called — but she wasn’t ready to answer yet. All told, she switched majors more than a dozen more times before finding her true passion.
“I just kept coming back to sociology,” said Johnson, who joined the Department of Sociology at Virginia Tech as chair this past fall. “My epiphany came in one moment, in one class.”
The class was Sex Roles, an academic course that now would be titled Sociology of Sex and Gender.
“I remember sitting in that classroom and feeling transformed. The course opened a worldview that resonated with countless things I’d observed in my own life but was never able to articulate,” said Johnson. “I learned a new language that helped me make sense of the world around me. I developed a broader worldview that helped me feel better about myself and more empowered in my day-to-day interactions.”
Through the revelatory experience, Johnson also became a feminist.
“I learned about the power feminism has for sense of self and self-confidence,” she said. “As that sense of self continued to grow, I considered how I could help make the world a better place for women and others who experience marginalization. I firmly believe we are all better off when we work to improve the lives of people by lifting from the bottom, not from the top.”
Johnson said she applies this philosophy as department chair, striving to ensure the same quality-of-work environment exists for all employees, regardless of title.
Raised in Southwest Virginia, Johnson earned her bachelor’s degree from Radford University, her master’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, and her doctorate from the University of Virginia. She served as an educator and in leadership roles during her 16 years at Virginia Commonwealth University and previously taught in community colleges in Virginia and North Carolina.
Johnson said she’s thrilled to join the Department of Sociology and the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences — especially now.
“Sociology and the humanities truly play an essential role in this time of widespread social angst and massive social change happening in our society. As a top research institution with a strong Ph.D. program in sociology, Virginia Tech can lead in demonstrating the important contributions of sociology and the humanities in making effective change,” she said. “Martin Luther King Jr. said the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I truly believe that. And I believe with effective and transformative social research, we truly can learn how to improve our society.”
Outstanding work led by department faculty served as a major driver for Johnson to apply for the chair position. She said she’s honored to follow in the footsteps of former Sociology Chair John Ryan, who led the department for 18 years. Ryan, who died last year, was posthumously conferred the title of professor emeritus.
“Our faculty are producing amazing work. To serve them in this capacity is an honor and a form of trust that I take seriously,” said Johnson. “One of my top responsibilities is to guide this department in its next phase. Dr. Ryan was a beloved leader, and following in his footsteps is a tremendous honor and responsibility.”
Among her awards in education, Johnson earned the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Distinguished Civilian Service Award for her work on social network analysis methodologies and team leadership.
As a native of the region, Johnson said she’s thrilled to return to her roots and lead efforts toward an improved society.
“As a rural, research-driven university, Virginia Tech plays a lead role in building and supporting the surrounding community and globally,” she said. “I’m grateful for the privilege of coming home to the region I love to pursue critical work.”