May 19, 2023
Life After Witt

#LifeAfterWitt: John Strait '91

Pointing Students in the Right Direction

He’s been north, he’s been south, he’s been east, and he’s been west; one might just say that John Strait, Wittenberg class of 1991, has been all over the map. And for his many travels taking students on experiential learning trips around the world, combined with his innovative teaching methods as a professor of geography at Sam Houston State University (SHSU) in Huntsville, Texas, Strait has been awarded the 2023 Distinguished Teacher Honors Award by the American Association of Geographers (AAG).

Even better, the award is a shared one with spouse Ava Fujimoto-Strait, his colleague and fellow geographer at Sam Houston State, who teaches alongside him. The award is the highest teaching distinction one can receive in the field of geography, and the AAG is one of the world's largest and most comprehensive organizations comprised of professional geographers. They officially received the award at the annual AAG on March 26 in Denver, Colorado.

Originally from Gallipolis, Ohio, Strait attended Wittenberg from 1986 through 1991, majoring in geography with a minor in urban studies. He played football for four years and was part of the 1988 Ohio Athletic Conference (OAC) championship team. In 1989, he was awarded All-North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC) his senior year as Wittenberg moved from the OAC to the NCAC. He is now a broadly trained human geographer who specializes in sociocultural, urban, and ethnic geographies.

“I must say that my times spent at Wittenberg were some of the most rewarding and significant years of my life, for all kinds of reasons. It would not be an exaggeration to admit that my experiences there changed my life,” said Strait, who has been a professor for 24 years now after earning his master’s degree from Georgia State University in 1994, followed by his Ph.D. in geography from the University of Georgia in Athens.

When I got to Witt, my goal was just to get into college and that was the extent of it. I am a first-gen college graduate, and all I knew at the time about being a professor was what I learned from Gilligan’s Island, and back then I wanted to be the skipper, not the professor. I certainly didn’t want to teach and would have thought it to be something I would never be qualified to do. On top of that, I had people asking me what I would do with a geography degree. But I grew up in a small town, so I was fascinated with big cities and urban planning sounded exciting. I was really interested in geography, and while I didn’t know what urban planning really was, it sounded professional, and I figured a geography major could get me there. My thinking was along those lines.
John Strait '91

However, somewhere along the way, school and geography changed Strait’s life, transforming him into a lifelong learner.

“I just enjoyed school so much and still didn’t have a plan for anything else, so I decided to keep going to the graduate level,” he said. “I took on a TA opportunity, yet still didn’t look at teaching as a career, but I ended up really enjoying it. A friend applied to the Ph.D. program at Athens, which had a really ‘happening’ music scene, and I love music, so I decided to do the same. I went to Athens, figuring if nothing else, it would provide me an opportunity to listen to some music and expose me to a new place, and after a while it just happened; at some point I had no doubt what I wanted to do. Looking back now, I’ve yearned to learn about and explore the world since I can remember, but at that point it finally dawned on me that I could make a career out of it. Now I advise college students, and I tell them that I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but I love learning and sharing what I’ve learned with others. I can’t imagine doing anything else. Where I’m at now is where I should be.”

John and Ava were awarded distinguished teaching honors for their joint teaching, mentoring, and pedagogical accomplishments at SHSU. And while each are great ambassadors individually for geography, their course and teaching styles are very much intertwined on a daily basis, offering innovative instruction that is engaging, place-based, and student-centered. The duo has taught several different courses at SHSU, many of which are recognized for their academic community engagement, due to their emphasis on community partnerships and service-based learning opportunities. Since 2006, they have coordinated and co-directed a host of immersive field courses, both within the United States and abroad. These field courses offer students hands-on interdisciplinary experiences in such diverse locales as the Mississippi Delta, Hawaii, Spain, Italy, and Morocco, as well as other locations.

“Ava and I do a lot of the same work in terms of research, and we have shared a lot of experiences with field work, and service immersion trips,” said Strait, who met Ava in graduate school. “She is more of an environmental geographer and was one of my TAs at Georgia. She is from Hawaii, so one of our courses that always gets a lot of attention incorporates a holistic focus on the islands and includes an immersive field experience. I have the utmost respect for her, both professionally and personally, so it’s really special to share the award with her. When the announcement came out, I was in the middle of a field course, driving a van load of students across the Mississippi Delta, and apparently the news came across as one of my students read a university update on her phone. She immediately shared the news with everybody in the van, including me, so I received a collective congratulations all at once. I found it fitting and very special to be made aware of the award at that moment, while I was in the middle of doing the very thing that is the most rewarding part of my job.”

The Straits’ courses are largely created around service and learning experiences for their students and include field workshops in underrepresented populations, as well as summer teacher workshops for schools and teachers to incorporate field experiences in the classroom.

John also serves as both the assistant chair of the Department of Environmental and Geosciences and the geography program coordinator, and Ava is a geography instructor and serves as the departmental lab coordinator. They have two children – a son, who is 21 and a junior at the University of Arkansas, and a daughter, who is 16 and a junior in high school. Their son, not surprisingly, is currently studying abroad in New Zealand at the University of Auckland.

At SHSU, Ava delivers workshops on creating “Engaging Classrooms” and has received multiple teaching awards, and Strait regularly offers a popular seminar on the Blues culture of the Mississippi Delta, a field-based course that uses the region’s musical culture as a lens to focus attention on various linkages between musical evolution and the geographic dimensions of the Civil Rights movement. He also shares his expertise with music and-place-based pedagogies in summer teacher workshops and institutes, including the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer K-12 Teacher Institute hosted by the Mississippi Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University.

“I really, really enjoy learning. I always say learning, and the knowledge generated from it, are like a good meal; it’s better and far more valuable when you share it with someone,” said John Strait, who was a member of Concerned Black Students and the Geography Club while at Wittenberg. “It’s spending time with young people that keeps you young, and learning is not a one-way street – I try to instill upon my students that it should be a shared experience. I am still learning from my students.

“My advice to any young person is ‘don’t hesitate to pursue your dreams and your passions;’ you may get there, but even if you don’t, you might just find something better. The majority of students come into college for the simple reason that they just want to find a job, but a job and a career aren’t exactly the same thing. Find it, that perfect job, but you should also find out who you are, what your passionate about. You don’t know if you like it until you try it – learn things you don’t already know, including things about yourself. That is what higher education should be all about.”

Cindy Holbrook
Cindy Holbrook
Senior Communications Assistant

About Wittenberg

Wittenberg's curriculum has centered on the liberal arts as an education that develops the individual's capacity to think, read, and communicate with precision, understanding, and imagination. We are dedicated to active, engaged learning in the core disciplines of the arts and sciences and in pre-professional education grounded in the liberal arts. Known for the quality of our faculty and their teaching, Wittenberg has more Ohio Professors of the Year than any four-year institution in the state. The university has also been recognized nationally for excellence in community service, sustainability, and intercollegiate athletics. Located among the beautiful rolling hills and hollows of Springfield, Ohio, Wittenberg offers more than 100 majors, minors and special programs, enviable student-faculty research opportunities, a unique student success center, service and study options close to home and abroad, a stellar athletics tradition, and successful career preparation.

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