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Liza Johnson Named New Director of Wendt Character Initiative

By Stacey Ortman

DUBUQUE, Iowa - After an extensive search, Liza Johnson, EdD, has been named the new director of the Wendt Character Initiative at the University of Dubuque. Johnson, who serves as director of personal empowerment and assistant director to the president at UD, will begin the new position in the 2024-2025 academic year.

"I am very pleased that Liza has been called to assume leadership responsibility for the Wendt Character Initiative," said Rev. Jeffrey F. Bullock, PhD, president of the University. "Liza has been an excellent colleague and teacher, and her work and research in personal empowerment is a natural complement to our important work in character education."

Annalee Ward, PhD, who has been director of the Wendt Character Initiative for 12 years, is retiring.

"We are all so grateful to Annalee for her leadership of the Wendt Center over these years," Bullock said. "She has been a faithful steward of this important UD program, and she has excelled at collaborating across campus to infuse the topic of character into nearly every aspect of our organization. She will be greatly missed."

Johnson came to the University of Dubuque over a decade ago in 2011 as an associate director of career services. She was promoted to her current position of director of personal empowerment and assistant director to the president in 2014. In that position, Johnson works towards enhancing a comprehensive personal empowerment program that aligns with UD's mission, vision, and goals. She has developed various transferable skills that will assist her as director of the Wendt Character Initiative, such as designing curriculum, leading undergraduate, faculty, and staff initiatives, and assessing the effectiveness of the program and initiatives.

"I'm incredibly thrilled and deeply honored to be appointed as the new director of the Wendt Character Initiative," Johnson said, adding. "I see this as an opportunity to extend my impact and continue to make a meaningful difference in the lives of our students and campus community on a larger scale. I'm particularly eager to contribute my background in social and emotional learning - or as our UD campus community knows it as empowerment skills - to complement the already impactful initiatives in place."

The Wendt Character Initiative is celebrating its 20th anniversary this academic year. In April 2004, Richard and Nancy Wendt endowed a large fund to establish the Lester G. and Michael Lester Wendt Character Initiative. Named in honor of Richard's late father, Lester, and Richard and Nancy's late son, Michael, the initiative sought to create a campus-wide culture of character focused on the values of truthfulness, fairness, honesty, and the Golden Rule. Two of the initiative's flagship programs are Wendt Character Scholars, which is a community of students selected as character leaders for the year-long co-curricular program where character-based topics are discussed, relevant issues are reflected upon, and excellent moral character is practiced through service, and the Michael Lester Wendt Character Lecture, which brings in guest speakers each fall and spring to speak about integrity, justice, compassion, and other topics of character.

As director of personal empowerment and assistant director to the president, Johnson said she takes pride in three key accomplishments. First, she built the personal empowerment program to be more accessible to students. Johnson expanded the program from one only offered to faculty and staff to one also offered to students as a three-credit academic offering that fulfills a general education requirement and expanded it outside of the classroom with the collaboration of other faculty and staff members.

Second, Johnson built an effective and caring team of educators.

"I've fostered strong partnerships and collaborations with faculty and staff across departments," Johnson said, adding. "There is a strong team of talented educators that participated in the personal empowerment training and/or certification program to either teach in the program and/or implement social and emotional learning in their existing curriculum and interactions with students and colleagues."

Third, Johnson and the personal empowerment research team has added to the gap of research in social and emotional learning education specifically in higher education, receiving a five-year research grant from Six Seconds: The Emotional Intelligence Network.

"By contributing new insights and knowledge to the field, we are helping to inform best practices and interventions for promoting social and emotional learning in higher education," Johnson said.

Outside of the university, Johnson is involved in numerous community organizations. She is a board member for the Foundation of Dubuque Public Schools, an EQ ambassador with Six Seconds: The Emotional Intelligence Network, and on the education committee of Two by Two Character Development. Johnson is also an active member of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). Additionally, she has presented at speaking engagements and trainings including being a co-presenter on "SEL for Equity, Wellbeing, and Emotional Justice in Higher Education" in 2023 at the AERA.

"Building partnerships within our community is crucial for understanding our local needs and tailoring the personal empowerment program accordingly," Johnson said, adding. "Additionally, extending these partnerships globally strengthens our impact by providing diverse perspectives, innovative ideas, and additional resources. Having involvement and partnerships both locally and globally not only enhances the personal empowerment program's effectiveness but also enriches student learning experiences, fostering a meaningful impact on both community, local, and global context."

Johnson is currently participating in a short-term undergraduate program offered by the Consortium for Transatlantic Studies and Scholarship in collaboration with Instituto Franklin-UAH in Madrid, Spain. She is teaching a personal empowerment course there from March 11, 2024, to April 13, 2024.

Among her numerous professional awards and honors, Johnson was named a Rising Star Award recipient by the Telegraph Herald and in 2018, was honored with an Organizational Impact award by the Women's Leadership Network in 2017, and received an Up & Coming Leader award by the Women's Leadership Network in 2015, among other awards.

Johnson holds a doctorate of education in leadership specialized in learning and change from National Louis University in Chicago, Illinois, a master of arts in organizational management specialized in leadership from Ashford University in Clinton, Iowa, and a master of arts in counseling specialized in school counseling from St. Xavier University in Chicago. She earned a bachelor of arts in psychology from Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.

"I'm looking forward to the next chapter and journey of my professional career," Johnson said, adding. "Most importantly, I'm honored to continue to contribute to impacting students' lives through UD's Mission."

Johnson is married to Dan Johnson, a senior ergonomics professional with John Deere. They have three children, Colin, Brooke, and Luke.