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For Mark Johnson and family, move to United Arab Emirates is education opportunity

Chief information officer Mark Johnson and his family are on the verge of the biggest change in their lives: A move from their rural Mankato farm to the United Arab Emirates, where Mark will be chief administrative officer for a college system.

2006-05-23
By Robb Murray, Free Press Staff Writer [published in The Free Press, Mankato, MN, 5/23/2006]

Photo by John Cross
The Johnsons (clockwise from upper left) Jon, Mark, Pam, Kim, Robyn, Stephen, Lillian, Lauryl, Jeremiah and Jacob.
Mark Johnson, who is in his final days of being Minnesota State University's chief information officer, has accepted a job in the United Arab Emirates. The family, which has resided on a rural Janesville farm since 1989, will leave in a few weeks. The Johnsons are (clockwise from upper left) Jon, Mark, Pam, Kim, Robyn, Stephen, Lillian, Lauryl, Jeremiah and Jacob.

JANESVILLE — The photo he's searching for wasn't in that stack, so he sets it aside and grabs another.

There are more than a hundred pictures on Mark Johnson's dining room table, many of which show desert, some show open-air markets with fresh seafood, a few show camels. He sifts through a dozen here, a dozen there, searching for the one with the ocean blue — the one that shows the view from his new home in the United Arab Emirates. He finds it.

"It's really an amazing view," says Johnson, outgoing chief information officer at Minnesota State University. "Quite different from our lilacs."

And, to be honest, on the list of big changes coming to Johnson and his family, their new view is an afterthought.

Johnson will leave MSU in a few weeks for the next big step in his career. He has accepted an offer to become the chief administrative officer with the Higher Colleges of Technology in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

Nearly the entire family — only one of his nine kids isn't making the trip — will move to a flat overlooking the Persian Gulf in Abu Dhabi. For the family — practicing Mennonites whose children are home schooled — it will be an abrupt change.

But Johnson and his wife, Pam, say they're excited to begin their next big adventure.

Johnson will become chief administrative officer, which means he'll be responsible for all technology, finance, budget, planning, facilities, procurement and contracts for the country's entire college system.

The Higher Colleges of Technology includes 12 colleges throughout the United Arab Emirates and serves more than 15,000 students in a technologically sophisticated educational environment.

Johnson came to MSU in January 2000, having worked previously as chief information officer at Brown Printing Co. in Waseca. Prior to joining Brown in 1989, he worked 11 years at General Mills Inc., starting as a programmer during his college years at MSU and rising to the position of computer services manager at General Mills' largest manufacturing facility in California.

Under Johnson's direction, MSU became an early leader in creating a wireless campus, and in 2001 Yahoo! named MSU one of the top 100 most wired campuses in the nation.

He has overseen initiatives that updated classrooms with technology- enabled equipment, and, during the past year, Johnson and his staff successfully implemented an integrated Voice Over Internet Protocol telecommunication system.

Since 1989, the Johnsons have lived on a farm near Janesville. It is on this farm — with animals in barns and a tall white silo towering into the sky — where most of them have spent nearly all their lives. Six of the family's nine children were born in their farmhouse.

Pam Johnson, who wears the traditional Mennonite dress and head piece, has home schooled their children.

In many ways, their upbringing will make the transition easier. For the older kids, their siblings have

Photo by John Cross
Mark Johnson at mailbox
Johnson says the move will give his children the chance to grow up in a diverse environment. United Arab Emirates is full of people from around the world.

been their best friends. So when they leave, there'll be less of a social separation issue.

In Abu Dhabi, they'll be living on the ninth floor of an apartment building. Their flat will have plenty of room for them inside, but to get outside, they'll need to hop on an elevator instead of just out the back door.

"They can't just go outside and tend the animals," Pam Johnson says.

There are parks nearby and places to walk, jog, rollerblade. But parents will need to accompany them whenever they go out — a far cry from the virtually carefree existence they live in now.

Johnson saw the job opening and, at first, jokingly mentioned to his wife that he might apply.

Pam Johnson has a family connection to UAE. An aunt and uncle, decades ago, helped establish a hospital there. She visited UAE years ago, and the country always held a  special place in her family's heart.

But then they got to talking about it and looked at the job posting. Johnson was very qualified for the position. Why not?

He applied online. Two weeks later they notified him he was a finalist. They did a video-conferencing interview with him and invited him for a seven-day visit.

While there, he met sheiks, ambassadors, the chancellor of the system. He also got the chance to look around the city and get a feel for what a life there might feel like. He liked what he saw, and so did the college officials in Abu Dhabi. He was offered the job.

There were family meetings, soul-searching, and in the end, the family decided together that they should go.

One of the first questions people ask him, of course, is whether they're concerned about their safety. A fellow churchgoer even said something to the effect of, "Why would you leave a wonderful farm in Janesville and go to a war-torn country?"

Johnson says he gets that a lot. And he doesn't mind explaining that UAE is a very peaceful place. About 80 percent of the population is not originally from UAE. English is spoken by most. There are plenty of hints of the West, such as shopping malls and big-name retailers.

But the allure of bringing the kids to the Middle East isn't what's familiar. Bringing their children to UAE will expose them to a world they've never seen.

"It's hard to teach children about the world (from a farm in rural Minnesota)," Pam Johnson said. "This will give wings to that teaching."

They're doing a little bit of research now, trying to learn about the culture before being immersed in it. UAE is an Islamic law country with Islamic laws that are far different than in the United States. Interaction between men and women is different. Religious freedom is tolerated, but nothing from Israel is allowed.

There are indoor ski hills for those days when the Johnsons long for a snowball fight. And new thrills, such as driving dune buggies through the sand and eating camel.

UAE is a booming country. According to a recent published report, about 20 percent of the world's construction cranes are in Dubai, another of the emirates in the UAE. Abu Dhabi, a city of a half-million, also is growing.

Johnson says the education his children will get, and the cultures they'll be exposed to, will prepare them for a world growing increasingly small.

Says Johnson, "Our children are going to live in a world that will be much more like United Arab Emirates than here."

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