Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez’s retirement leaves ‘think backward’ mantra to grads

Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez
Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez

Once Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez dismissed her early notions to become a ballerina or an archaeologist, she turned her attention to nuclear physics.

“I used to have a lab in our basement and blow things up,” Johnston-Rodriguez says.

“But I had a career counselor who told me that, for young women, there were few jobs in science. It was one of those gender bias ideas,” she adds. “He kind of steered me out of that, and I ended up in foreign languages and theater.”

She left her tiny southern Illinois hometown of Robinson, where her father, Archie, worked as an architectural engineer for the Ohio Oil refinery, and where her mother, Marie, raised the six kids, to enroll at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Unfortunately, her eventual bachelor’s degree in Speech yielded exactly the outcome she had feared with nuclear physics: no jobs.

When a friend pursuing a graduate degree in Special Education pointed Johnston-Rodriguez to volunteer opportunities in that field, however, she unexpectedly found her life’s calling.

“I met a young man with some pretty significant disabilities. He was in an institution,” she says. “My focus turned to getting people out of institutions. That was the movement at the time, and it was a social justice issue for me. I needed to try to find a way to help out as many people as I could.”

Johnston-Rodriguez, who retired Aug. 1 from the NIU Department of Special and Early Education, soon entered graduate school herself.

Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez
Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez sailing on Lake Erie on her brother’s boat: “My dream!”

After earning her M.S.Ed. in Special Education, Severe Cognitive and Behavior Disabilities, she stayed in Champaign for the next 10 years working to remove people with special needs from the “horrendous, inhumane conditions” of the institutions where they lived.

That mission continued in Minnesota, where she was employed by the state’s Developmental Disabilities Council as a regional planner. A court action had closed the institutions.

Later, in Wisconsin, she served as a “a bureaucrat” working with the state’s Department of Health Services in coordination with a coalition of counties, schools and the federal government. She then took her talents to New Concepts, a Wisconsin non-profit agency that developed supportive apartments for 600 people with special needs, 400 of whom had been moved out of institutions.

During that time in Madison, Johnston-Rodriguez saw another need that drew her into a doctoral program at the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education.

“I actually became tired of training people to work out in the community,” she says. “They were coming out of university programs and did not know how to work with people with severe disabilities.”

Johnston-Rodriguez completed a Ph.D. in Special Education, Transition and Career Development Emphasis.

While in pursuit of that degree, she worked as an associate outreach specialist for UW-Madison’s Rehabilitation Research and Training Center and for the Center for Education and Work funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.

Both appointments matched her passion for creating and managing interventions that improve the “transition years” for young adults in special education as they move from school to the job market.

Transition is a federally mandated process, and the language of the legislation encourages student-driven planning.

Her hope is that these graduates secure better opportunities than the “sheltered workshops” that hire people with disabilities for light work at sometimes less than minimum wage. Even that, though, is preferable than a life “drifting or incarcerated.”

Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez’s husband, Ben, outside the couple’s favorite restaurant in Puerto Rico.
Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez’s husband, Ben, outside the couple’s favorite restaurant in Puerto Rico.

“The outcomes have been so bad,” she says. “For some reason, we do a pretty good job in elementary, and then, when kids get to high school, they kind of fall through the cracks. In the past, we have not done a great job of planning.”

Johnston-Rodriguez first taught as an assistant professor in Rehabilitation Counseling at Montana State University-Billings, where she had a transition grant to fund work with Native Americans, and later at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, where she became tenured in 2006.

In August of 2006, she joined the NIU College of Education.

“I wanted to be a part of, and contribute to, an intense, deep program that really prepared people. I’d seen so many programs in other places where it was a little more superficial,” she says. “We have had a fair amount of flexibility to develop our programs and watch them grow.”

Among her accomplishments here are Project SEEC (Students Engaged in Exploring Careers), which she piloted at Hononegah High School and three other schools.

Students with special needs begin as freshmen to contemplate their future beyond high school.

During their sophomore year, they create PowerPoint presentations that reflect those plans and even visit NIU to field questions from NIU teacher-licensure candidates, to talk about how the process has empowered them and to describe how teachers can help.

Project SEEC has allowed the Hononegah students to discover self-advocacy, self-determination, self-reliance and problem-solving abilities.

“To see those kids go from having no clue what they want to do to actually enrolling at Rock Valley College has been pretty special, and for me to see the hard work that their teachers do,” Johnston-Rodriguez says. “They get on board because they start getting really attached to their students.”

Johnston-Rodriguez also helped to plan the NIU College of Education’s Spring 2018 Community Learning Series on “Transitioning to the Adult World: Connecting the Dots for Young Adults with Autism.”

Johnston-Rodriguez and her younger grandson, Gabriel.
Johnston-Rodriguez and her younger grandson, Gabriel.

As she closes her career, she is encouraged by the progress made in the last quarter-century.

“We’re now seeing programs for students with intellectual disabilities at higher education institutions,” she says.

Meanwhile, she is confident that the special education teachers she has prepared as a professor will advance the cause of transition as they carry her philosophy of “think backward” into their work.

“I want them to ‘think backward’ because backward-planning is what’s key to transition,” Johnston-Rodriguez says. “There are some phrases that I really drill, and process that I really drill, into the head, but it’s always about thinking, ‘Where is this student going to end up, and how am I going to get them there? What do they want to do?’ ”

Those answers come through helping young adults with special needs to develop “an understanding of themselves,” she says, and through the advocacy of their teachers.

“With this generation, I have just seen so much more awareness and valuing of social justice. They really have embraced it, and I get so excited. They really do get it. Ten years ago, that was not the case,” she says.

“Now it’s very important for them that what they’re doing is meaningful for them and meaningful for the student. When they do their clinical at the secondary school, they come back and they’re really excited. They want to teach high school, and I think a lot of them were afraid to teach high school before.”

For Johnston-Rodriguez herself, the future holds a different kind of employment.

She and her son, Tony, are swapping dogs as soon as they can so that Johnston-Rodriguez can train Mully, a 6-month-old Spoodle, as a therapy dog.

“She goes by Momo,” Johnston-Rodriguez says. “She’s just a very special dog – very outgoing, very empathetic. I think she’ll made a good therapy dog. Hopefully, it won’t be too late. Everything’s on hold where they trying to figure out if we can socially distance and do the classes.”

Johnston-Rodriguez already has enrolled in online classes “to brush up on my Spanish and Russian,” and is hoping to begin the coursework to become certified as an educator trained in trauma-effective practices.

The view from where Sarah and Ben stay in Puerto Rico, taken before the hurricane and earthquake.
The gorgeous view from where Sarah and Ben stay while in Puerto Rico, taken before the hurricane and earthquake.

On hold, however, are travel plans.

She and her husband, Ben, a retired assistant dean at UW-Madison, had hoped to visit his native Puerto Rico and the land they own there, along with the homelands of her ancestors in Ireland and Scotland.

The couple, who met and married in Champaign, will enjoy spending more time with their youngest grandson, who’s in high school. They’re also connecting electronically with their oldest grandson, who recently joined the U.S. Marine Corps and was just approved for leave this month.

Finding, exploring and practicing those things that energize her – or, in other words, her retirement plans – are exactly the legacy she leaves with her alumni.

Successful teachers must “challenge themselves all the time, not get complacent, have passion and do it – to find some area that they really care about. That social justice piece is so important to understand why we do this,” Johnston-Rodriguez says. “Otherwise, it’s just a job, and it’s a really tough job. If you’re just doing it for a paycheck, you won’t last long.”

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