Eric Johnson: changing the world one student at a time

Eric Johnson: changing the world one student at a time

January 31, 2023
Inside of the UGA Visitors Center. (Photo/Elise Kim)
Editor’s Note: Elise Kim is the author of this feature. She is a Yarbrough-Grady Fellow and a student tour guide at the UGA Visitors Center.

Nestled in the easternmost corner of campus, inside of the Four Towers Building, the University of Georgia Visitors Center has welcomed guests to UGA’s campus since 1996, when some of the Olympic Games were hosted at the university. If you have never been on a campus tour, you may have no idea what goes on in this picturesque building, but as soon as you set foot inside, you can tell that you have found something special.

Everyone who works at this magical little spot calls it “the happiest place on campus,” and a big reason for that can be attributed to Eric Johnson (ABJ ‘86).

Johnson, or “EJ,” as the student tour guides lovingly call him, is the director of the Visitors Center. Throughout the past 15 years that he has spent in this position, he has truly created something remarkable.

When I first sat down to write this profile, I knew it was going to be difficult to put into words the type of person that EJ is. I work at the Visitors Center with him now, and it is my favorite job — largely because of him.

When I asked some former tour guides how they would describe EJ to a stranger, these are some of the words that came up: special, remarkable, generous, intuitive, grounded, thoughtful, curious, funny, inclusive, well read, intellectual, guiding light. The list goes on.

EJ is warm and welcoming. He is deeply intelligent, always full of wisdom. I am convinced that there is a section of his brain that is dedicated to storing thoughtful quotes about life, which he regularly brings up in conversation. Often, when talking with EJ, he will say your name, and you will know he is truly listening — that he is interested in what you have to say.

He is humble. Even when I interviewed him for this story, asking him questions about his life and his experiences, he still found a way to make me feel like the special one.

One piece of advice that EJ tells all of the tour guides comes to mind: “Make the audience the hero of the story.” He is an expert at this.

Student life

EJ is a product of UGA himself, having graduated from the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication with a degree in telecommunication arts (now entertainment and media studies). A first generation student from Rome, Georgia, UGA was the only college he applied to.

Johnson chats with a group of tour guides on north campus. (Photo/Andrew Davis Tucker)

When the time came for him to select his program of study, Johnson remembers carefully perusing a list of every major offered at UGA and telecommunication arts just caught his eye.

“I was like, ‘I love television. You can major in that?’ And that was really the amount of thought I probably gave to it,” Johnson said.

Once he got accepted to UGA, Johnson and his family came up to Athens for a visitation event and toured the school. That was the only college tour that he went on when he was a prospective student.

Throughout his time at UGA, Johnson was very involved on campus. He lived in Lipscomb Hall for the entirety of his student experience and he was a resident assistant during his junior and senior years. He was also involved in campus ministry and University Judiciary, and he loved his journalism classes and the community that he found within Grady.

“It was a lot of fun and I learned a lot about writing and communicating and working with a team and I had a great time with the major,” Johnson said. “Even if you’re not in the journalism field, you’ll walk away with skills you can use in any career, any walk of life, any activity you pursue, because clear and effective and authentic communication is rare.”

Getting to D.C.

Johnson smiles for a photo during his time working for Congressman George “Buddy” Darden. (Courtesy/Eric Johnson)

As graduation approached, Johnson realized that he needed to begin his job search.

“I’m a first generation college student, and my parents were just happy that I was in college. There wasn’t any expectation or pressure from them of, ‘What are you going to do next?’” Johnson said. “But it did start to dawn on me, like wait a second, all I’ve done all my life is go to the next year of school and there’s no more years of school left.”

He made a trip to Clark Howell Hall and then walked back to Lipscomb, career guide book in hand. He remembers reading the book in his dorm room, and in it, there was an article about working on Capitol Hill as a staffer for a member of Congress.

“I was like, ‘I’ve never heard of this, that sounds like fun.’ And so that’s what led me to my first career,” Johnson said.

His first job was working as a caseworker in the district office of his own representative, Congressman George Washington “Buddy” Darden III. Darden was a UGA graduate himself, and he was also a first generation college student.

After about six months, Representative Darden offered Johnson a job as his legislative assistant in Washington, D.C.

“I was living the life because it’s like me, a history nerd who loves this stuff, and I got to sit down with a member of Congress every day and talk about what’s going on on the Hill,” Johnson said. “I was very fortunate that he was a really good boss and a good leader to learn from.”

Johnson did legislation for two years and he also got to write Representative Darden’s weekly newspaper column, so when the congressman’s press secretary left, he naturally asked Johnson to fill the role.

After two more years, Johnson was ready for something new, so he moved back to Georgia, worked a couple of different jobs and traveled some while he thought about what to do next.

Back to his roots

“I said, ‘Well, what would be fun?’ It always comes back to what I think would be fun,” Johnson said. “I love UGA and it transformed my life. Could I work there? And I love Athens. How fun to be in Athens and not have homework! What a life I could have. So I just said, ‘How could I get myself to UGA?’”

What he thought would be a two or three year experience turned into 30 years of working at the university.

Johnson started out in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. He was in charge of the Georgia Recruitment Team (GRT), a group of student volunteers who led campus tours once a day. This was in 1992, so the Visitors Center did not exist yet, and EJ had the opportunity to select and train students to be part of the GRT. He was also in charge of the Foundation Fellowship selection process.

In 1995, Johnson stepped up as the co-director of New Student Orientation. The following year, he began running it all by himself, and he continued in that role for 13 summers after that.

“The more I did that orientation job and working with students through GRT still, the less and less I was interested in politics,” Johnson said. “Orientation really did change the trajectory of my career from being just an admissions guy for a couple years and moving back to something else, to saying, ‘I could make a career out of this.’”

Johnson takes a family photo on the beach with his wife Shanna and their two daughters, Ella and Annie. (Courtesy/Eric Johnson)

The Visitors Center

By 2002, Johnson was married, and by 2007, he had two young daughters. He was still running orientation, but he started thinking about finding a job that was more suitable to his family lifestyle. Around the same time, the director of the Visitors Center happened to be retiring; it worked out perfectly.

“I always kind of had my eye on it. What a happy little spot,” Johnson said. “I always had this vision: ‘Ah, I could be the admissions guy who worked out of the Visitors Center. I would love that.’”

Johnson has been the director of the Visitors Center for 15 years now, and he said he is not thinking about retiring any time soon.

“I get to walk in every day and people call me by name and seem happy to see me and I get to be happy to see them,” Johnson said. “Those little touches of life, that’s what makes life worthwhile and meaningful.”

He referenced the “Cheers” theme song; the chorus goes, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name,” and then, in true EJ fashion, he pulled out one of his favorite quotes.

“There’s a David Hume quote: ‘Friendship is the chief joy of human life,’” Johnson said.

“I’ve got good relationships and friends that care about me and that I care about, and I basically get to be Peter Pan. I get to be at a college that I love and never grow up,” he added.

EJ’s impact

Johnson poses with former tour guides Kevin Schatell (left) and Dumbi Ogbechie Edmond (center) outside of the Visitors Center. (Courtesy/Kevin Schatell)

This sense of community and family that EJ has built at the Visitors Center is not lost on the students. They value it as much as he does.

Emily Curl (ABJ ‘14), a former tour guide and the current digital social host for iHeartRadio, still thinks about the lessons that she learned from EJ every day.

“As I get older and venture into my life and I’m 30 now I’ve had many jobs in New York City, working with some of the best people you can work with in entertainment, and I just go back to EJ,” Curl said. “It’s just so rare to have a boss cultivate a community like he did, and I’m just so thankful that I got to be a part of it.”

One moment during her time at UGA will always stand out to her. It was her sophomore year and her parents were in town for a game day. She showed them around campus and then brought them with her to the Visitors Center tailgate.

“I’ll never forget overhearing my dad having a conversation with EJ. My dad shook his hand and he was just like, ‘I just want you to know that Emily talks about you all the time,’ and he’s like, ‘Thank you for taking care of my daughter,’” Curl said. “It was just this beautiful moment that I won’t ever forget.”

Kevin Schatell (ABJ ‘16) also worked as a tour guide during his time at UGA. Schatell and Curl met through the Visitors Center and have remained close friends since.

Schatell is a producer at the TODAY Show, so they both live in New York City. He is extremely grateful for everything that he has learned from EJ as well.

“When I think back on not only my time at the University of Georgia, but my life, one name stands out as the single most impactful person, and it’s Eric Johnson,” Schatell said. “He changed the way I approach just about everything I do, especially work and communicating with people, and he really redefined for me, the how and the why, for everything.”

Schatell, Curl and the Johnsons attend Dumbi Ogbechie Edmond’s wedding. (Courtesy/Kevin Schatell)

One thing that stands out to Schatell is EJ’s work-life balance and the importance that he places on family.

“EJ loves his family. He loves Shanna and those girls more than anything and that shows, and he’s taken those family values to the students that he works with,” Schatell said.

Schatell is not the only one who has noticed this. Jason Hafford (ABJ ‘11), admires the way that Johnson prioritizes his family as well. Hafford was a tour guide and an orientation leader when he was at UGA, and he now works as a global agent for Creative Artists Agency.

“I think EJ does a really good job of prioritizing his family, and I think you can be really good at your job and care a lot about your job and what you’re doing, and at the same time, care about your family and prioritize your family as well,” Hafford said. “I always really appreciated that and thought to myself, ‘When I one day have this family, I want my family to sort of be like them.’”

Hafford, Curl and Schatell all talked about how much EJ’s influence carries into their lives today and the effect that he is having on UGA and on the world.

Hafford (left) and Johnson smile in front of a mural in the Visitors Center with friends. (Courtesy/Jason Hafford)

“EJ finds a way to relate to everyone, which I think is really special and unique. He can sort of meet people where they are and I think he sees the best in everyone,” Hafford said. “He’s really good at connecting people … he’s done that a couple of times for me way after graduation and I’m still friends with the people that he introduced me to.”

Curl remembers how much Johnson made a difference for her when she was a student here. She always had big dreams of working in entertainment, but she felt like there was something holding her back.

“I always felt like I wasn’t smart enough. I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t look the part, all these things that I would constantly battle with,” Curl said. “I’ll never forget EJ making me feel so important and so smart and so funny … he really built up my confidence.”

When Curl and Schatell were tour guides together, they wanted to start a YouTube show, but they didn’t have anywhere to film, so EJ let them use the Visitors Center. Schatell said that EJ is always doing things like that, bringing people together and lifting them up toward their dreams.

“I think we’ve reached our dreams largely because of EJ and his belief in us,” Schatell said. “He could see that we were excited and when he sees that kind of spark, I know that he just cares so much.”

Something else that really stands out to Schatell is a TED Talk that Johnson shared about awakening possibility. This is one of the mottos of the Visitors Center. Another motto — which is very connected to the latter — is, “The only reason to give a campus tour is to change the world.”

Johnson and Natalie Mann, the assistant director of the Visitors Center, pose for a group photo with the tour guides in front of the UGA Chapel. Hafford stands (third from the right) in the back row. (Courtesy/Eric Johnson)

At first, that may seem like a lot of weight to put on a student tour guide, but it is actually the opposite. EJ consistently emphasizes the idea that the goal of giving a tour is not to convince people to come to school here or to sell the university to them; it is to awaken possibility in them. And if they happen to fall in love with UGA along the way, that’s great too.

“I wanted to give something to this audience that they could use no matter where they ended up going to school,” Johnson said. “That’s really powerful, walking in the door not to get something from them, but to give them something.”

With every interaction, with every story told, with every new and unexpected connection, there is an opportunity to ignite a little spark in someone else. You may not change the whole world, or even a tiny fraction of it, but you can change one person’s world, and that is everything that any of us can ever really hope for.

The legacy so far

EJ is changing the world.

Schatell said that the tour guide in him has never really left. Often, when he is on the plaza for the TODAY Show, he finds himself talking to students and their families about their college journey.

“When I talk to people about being a tour guide, they say, ‘Oh, my God! We went on a tour at Georgia! It was our favorite,’ whether or not life took them to Georgia as their college. When I think about that, I think of EJ because it’s like, of course the bar is set really high because of him,” Schatell said. “His legacy stretches so far beyond what he realizes.”

Johnson and Schatell ride the subway with former tour guide Jessie Blaeser. (Courtesy/Kevin Schatell)

Curl talked about EJ’s legacy as well.

“I hope that he feels encouraged and loved,” she said. “And that he realizes how far his reach has really spread and how much he’s done for so many of us.”

At the Visitors Center, there is one word in particular that has become a part of every tour guide’s vocabulary.

“Remarkable: unusual or special and therefore surprising and worth mentioning.”

This is the definition of “remarkable,” according to the Cambridge English Dictionary. Schatell said that he never really gave much thought to this word before working at the Visitors Center, but it is part of the guidelines that EJ created for student tour guides at UGA.

There are four rules:

Be safe.

Be kind.

Be authentic.

Be remarkable.

“The word ‘remarkable’ didn’t have much meaning in my life before I met EJ, but the way he described it — that is the gold standard. It’s my favorite adjective now because of him. Some things are just worth remarking about. It’s so good, you can’t help but talk about it,” Schatell said. “EJ is the definition of remarkable.”