Cornell University

Graduate Degree Programs

218 Ives Hall, 607-255-1522

Fellowship support helped Kurt Johnson prioritize his family and his education

Kurt JohnsonFor Kurt Johnson, being one of three 2008 Lawrence K. Williams Fellows at the ILR School means he can study at his first choice for graduate school without compromising the financial future of his wife and two young children.

"The fellowship means affordability," says Johnson. "Anybody can take out student loans, but when you have two kids and who knows, over the course of the next two years, maybe a third, and hefty student loans, it just bogs you down. It would take us 10 to 15 years to pay that debt down. It's not a decision I was comfortable with."

The Provo, Utah, native just completed his first semester in the Master of Industrial Labor Relations program. Before Cornell, Johnson spent four years in China, where he worked in human resources for Beijing United Family Hospital, and later, for a start-up company called Language Calls that provides one-on-one language instruction online.

"It was there at the start-up company in particular that I realized, 'Here I am, heading up HR by myself with no real HR talent around me to lead and guide me,'" says Johnson. "I realized I wanted to go back to school."

Johnson, who earned a business degree at Brigham Young University, met several Cornell alumni in China who told him that if he wanted to study human resources Cornell was the place to go.

"Cornell is the right school," he says. "I absolutely love it. What I've been impressed with most is the interaction I get not only with faculty who are world renowned in HR, but the executives who come from Fortune 500 companies. Over the course of the past three months here I've met 12 different heads of HR. I don't think I could have had that kind of experience anywhere else."

When he finishes at Cornell, Johnson says he hopes to join a corporation with a reputation for excellent human resources practices, learn what he can, and then move into a smaller company where he can have a greater impact.

The Williams Fellowships were established through a $1.5 million bequest from the late Professor Emeritus Lawrence K. Williams, who served for a quarter century as the ILR School's director of graduate studies. Johnson recently met Williams's partner, Professor Emerita Jeanne Mueller, at the unveiling of a plaque in Williams's honor at the school. Mueller has also contributed to the Williams Fellowship endowment.

"She was open, offered her contact information, and really welcomed any contact we wanted to have," Johnson says. He hopes to introduce Mueller to his wife, Melanie, and their children, 3-year-old Lucy and 1-year-old Owen, before he completes his studies.

"I want to thank her, do anything we can for her, and let her know what the fellowship has meant to us," says Johnson. "Without the fellowship, I would have gone somewhere else and received what I'd consider a second-class education."