Meeting the Need: Philip Johnson (’99) Incorporates American Sign Language Program

Philip Johnson, '99

On the day of his graduation from Campbell in 1999, Philip Johnson returned to his room in Small Hall to find a voicemail waiting on his answering machine. 

The message was from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, offering Johnson a job in their Career Services department. Johnson, who majored in Philosophy and Religion while minoring in English and Business, had an interest in higher education. He took the position with UNC; a job that would set the tone for Johnson’s ongoing contribution to students and advisement.

In 2010, Johnson became a senior academic advisor in the School of Education at the University of Oklahoma. This position would allow Johnson a platform to meet a need he had been passionate about since his time as an undergraduate student at Campbell: serving the deaf community. 

As a student at Campbell, Johnson had wanted to take American Sign Language (ASL) as his foreign language credit, but had not been able to due to the fact that students in certain programs (Social Work, Education, Pre-Med) got first priority for enrollment in the course. However, Johnson’s interest in ASL and the deaf community did not lessen with time. When he found that the University of Oklahoma was the only Big 12 school that did not offer ASL in some shape or form, he knew something needed to change. 

In 2013, Johnson brought a proposal to the Dean of the College of Education at OU that outlined a potential ASL program at the college. Johnson developed the program using three guidelines- two of which he took from the ASL program at Campbell. 

First, Johnson proposed that Education, Social Work, Pre-Med, and Journalism students should get top priority for entrance into the program. Next, Johnson was adamant that ASL intstructors for the program should be completely deaf. This requirement, Johnson explains, incorporates “an element of deaf culture that students who were not deaf could learn to appreciate and interact within.” Finally, Johnson wanted to make certain that the College of Education at OU would shepherd the program in a way that would have ongoing support; he wanted participants in the program, both instructors and students, to be able to come back and help support the ASL track through sharing their own experiences.

Johnson’s hard work and thorough planning has paid off. Since the program’s launch in the fall of 2016, every class and section has been completely full. The wait list for the semester at the time of Johnson’s interview was over 100 students long. 

When asked about the enormous success of the program, Johnson attributes the overwhelmingly positive reception to the concept of community. Johnson explains that the incorporation of the deaf culture into the program creates a bridge between the deaf and hearing communities within the OU community. This connection is abundantly clear in the participation of ASL students in an event called Deaf Coffee Jam at a Starbucks in Norman, OK.

At this event, ASL students are encouraged to have coffee and chat with deaf individuals. In Johnson’s words, the event “shows the deaf community that hearing people are trying, but also shows the hearing community that deaf people want to communicate, and that they have the means to communicate other than simply pointing at a picture or nodding yes and no”. 

In addition to reaping an overwhelmingly successful academic program, Johnson’s hard work has also garnered several awards over the past few years. In September of 2018, Johnson received the National Academic Advising Association’s (NACADA) Presentation Award for his lecture, “The Practicality of Parallel Planning.” In this presentation, Johnson emphasized the importance of capturing both professional and personal interests when advising students who may want to change their major. 

The University of Oklahoma also recognized Johnson’s efforts with two awards in 2019. He was selected by a group of his peers to receive the Provost’s office Outstanding Academic Advising award; a choice that makes perfect sense when considering the fact that Johnson’s student satisfaction rate is well above 90 percent. 

The second award named Johnson as the recipient of the 2019 Distinguished Service Award for his work to integrate the deaf community and the campus community. Johnson is the first advisor to win both of the university awards individually, as well as the first to win them both consecutively in the same year. 

When asked what servant leadership means to him, Johnson explains that the key to service is stepping out of one’s comfort zone. “It’s always a risk to lead because you are choosing to take charge” he explains, “and it’s also a risk to serve, because it may not be something you’re used to.” 

Despite the risk, Johnson also highlights the importance of taking the leap anyway; not for personal accolades, but for the success of future generations. “When my youngest daughter goes to college, if she goes to OU and wanted to take sign language, to know that her dad was instrumental in his process…so students like her could reap the benefits and the deaf community could reap the benefits? That’s what brings me satisfaction” 

Ultimately, Johnson credits many of his choices and successes to his time at Campbell University; in fact, though Johnson now lives over 1,000 miles from Buies Creek, he remarks that Campbell still feels like home. 

“It feels like I could go back to my dorm room at Small Hall and meet up with people I hadn’t seen in 20 years and we would still know exactly where to go because it’s still home to us.” 

The Campbell “feeling,” Johnson elaborates, is an atmosphere that is clearly focused on Christian service, community, and education. Johnson states that this tone of community, leadership, and faith is part of what set the basis for his own life of service, and what keeps the university feeling like home, even 20 years after his graduation day.