KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Life has a way of coming full circle. For Johnny Anderson III, it happens multiple times a week. The Western Michigan University graduate student is an advocate for homeless individuals, helping connect them to health care, housing and other essential services in the community.
The old adage says home is where the heart is. To me, Western is home.
"The thing I love doing most is helping people; making that connection with them," says Anderson, community outreach coordinator for the Family Health Center in Kalamazoo, who splits his time between the office and the field, looking for people in need.
"He is genuine, which is really important when you're serving an underserved community," says Mindie Smith, the center's director of behavioral health and substance use disorder services. "He is authentically compassionate. He feels what people feel."
It wasn't that long ago that he was in their shoes.
Anderson graduated high school in 1999 eying a career in graphic design. He enrolled in some college courses close to home in Pullman, Michigan, but gradually veered off that path to venture into full-time employment, first in adult foster care and then in a factory. In 2015, he was ready for a change.
"I was just unhappy. I woke up one day and said, 'This is not me.' At that point I felt like I had hit rock bottom, being in that factory and not seeing myself going anywhere … knowing I wasn't living up to my potential."
Homeless and hungry for a new start, Anderson enrolled in classes at WMU. His passion for connecting with others led him to social work, a program in which he found supportive mentors who propelled him down the path toward his career goals.
"People just believed in me," he says. "Professors encouraged me and introduced me to opportunities."
Investing in Success
While impactful, his experience is not unique at WMU. A recent survey of Western graduates found 98% had at least one instructor who made them excited about learning. Anderson had several.
"Professors like Ron Peterson, Stephanie Lagalo, Sandra Bibilomo and Dr. Adam Osborne helped me to acknowledge and have confidence in my abilities," says Anderson. "Dr. Michelle McGrady encouraged me and influenced my curiosity and passion in holistic health."
"Dr. John Howie helped me get through some things with meditation. I can't thank him enough; that changed my life. Dr. Bridget Weller has pushed me to dream big and just go for things."
Anderson also gleaned professional experience through internships and other experiential learning opportunities—something that helped him get a job directly after graduation in spring 2019.
"It really prepared him very well in terms of how to organize with the community," says Smith, a WMU alum herself, who has hired many Western graduates and student interns.
"I find them really well-prepared. They have a good understanding of what they need to do. They're really well supported by their internship advisors. They just bring a nice blend of the intellectual side of work, which is understanding your tasks, and the personality side of work, which is understanding your patients."
"I never would have imagined I would have the opportunities or be in the place that I'm working right now," says Anderson, who is now pursuing his master's degree in social work at WMU.
"Before I came here, I had this broad idea of just wanting to make a change in the world. But, going to Western and the experience I had with my fellow students and professors has opened my eyes and my heart to the field of social work and to the greater society."
Once homeless and struggling to find direction, Anderson feels like he's finally found where he's meant to be.
"The old adage says home is where the heart is," says Anderson. "To me, Western is home."
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