Alumni Feature- Jeanne Johnston (’78) | A New Journey

By all accounts, most people would say that I have had an exciting career.  After graduating from JMU at the age of twenty, I enrolled in an executive training program in Richmond and started work the Monday after graduation.

At age twenty-four, I travelled to the Pacific-Basin region to develop product for retail giants like Macys. I never had the desire or courage to travel overseas. When I had the opportunity to go to New York City during college, I declined. I was really afraid of going to a big city. But my roommates at JMU were from different areas of the country, and two had lived all over the world with their families. After spending time with them and seeing two of them drive to California after graduation just to live on the West Coast, I discovered a new desire – seeing the world would be my next goal!

Jeanne and a reunion with her JMU friends


By thirty, I was coordinating partnerships between various companies and by forty, I was setting goals for a second career; not having a clue as to what that could entail.

Some would say about my corporate career that I had quite a journey, but a much more difficult journey was about to start.

After living for seven years in New England working for various companies and travelling, I decided (during another snowy weekend) to pack up my belongings and move back to the South.

Jeanne and her favorite pastime

In the mid 1990’s I was working in Charlotte, North Carolina.  I volunteered on committees that were working to make Charlotte more “appealing” and offer a better quality of life.  Hard to imagine that Charlotte ever had that challenge!

One volunteer committee that I was on, organized events in a blighted textile mill area north of Charlotte (now known as NODA). We arranged events from art crawls and new restaurant openings to public “visioning” workshops with the city staff.   While working with city personnel and various architect firms, I became interested in their roles regarding community revitalization.  I then began arranging lunch and after-work meetups to find out more about their jobs.  While I had great meetups, I could not envision how to jump from a business career into a more community-driven type of job.

It wasn’t until six years later that I could find time to continue my networking, as my overseas schedule increased with a new position in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  However, when my networking and informational meetings resumed, I realized that going back to school just might be the jumpstart I needed to reinvent my next career. Fast-forward to graduation from University of North Carolina in 2009, at 51 years of age, and my next job as a Community Coordinator and grant writer for a municipality.

All the informational meetings, pro-bono projects, field research and internships had finally paid off.  Since then, I have transitioned into fundraising, campaign management and the development arena for nonprofits.

Taking the time and expense to go back to school as a single person is a daunting task. But almost 10 years after taking this journey, was it worth it? Sometimes I wonder, “Am I glad that I did it?” You betcha!

My first goal of travelling around the world in my twenties was completed by my thirties.  My next goal was to explore what other talents I might have had and how to take my life/work experience into other areas for work. This proved to be harder, but well worth some of the angst I had in achieving this goal.

Trying new things!

My learnings:

I do believe a general life plan with goals is helpful; however, no one told me how often I would need to regroup when circumstances dramatically changed my life. My experience at JMU, with so many students from other areas in the country, showed me how to embrace change and keep pushing to reach any goal I wanted to achieve.

When you have to regroup, your career and life almost feels like a failure; in reality, it is just a detour. Most events in your life are really just speed bumps rather than walls you cannot get around.  Just remember: even if it takes longer, you can always go around or under that wall!

Tips for Reinventing, Restarting or Regrouping your life and career:

  1. READ! Whatever you are interested or remotely interested in. As I was looking into community revitalization, there were no magazines on that topic! I read economic development journals, newspapers, business journals as well as looking at architectural and land developer websites for what type of projects they might be working on. A friend of mine interested in starting a business for her framing and art work read all types of business and marketing journals, articles and other entrepreneurial articles.
  2. Manage and work the heck out of your community/network. You can, and will, meet more people than you need to take advice from. Just like writing an article, you will need to edit until you have a core network that you can work with and utilize for opportunities and maybe job references. Read, “Never Eat Lunch Alone” by Keith Ferazzi.
  3. Look into additional training and/or a different degree. Since the recession, many higher learning institutions see the opportunity with experienced adults that want to change careers and now offer many concentrations or a degree in new fields.
  4. Let people know you are looking for a career change. People having two or more careers is the norm, rather than the exception. Even let your employer in (if you think they are open) on your potential change. People love to see others succeed in new ventures. Why? Because most everyone wants to try something new in their lives and they may decide to join you!




Jeanne has a Bachelor of Science from James Madison University and a Masters in Public Affairs (MPA) from University of North Carolina Greensboro. Jeanne has completed the Certification in Community Development from UNC Kenan Flagler School of Government in 2010. She will be taking her exam in 2018 to receive her CFRE (Certified Fund Raising Executive)

After 25 years travelling in the corporate sector, Jeanne did field research and internships during her MPA program in downtown development, grant writing and nonprofit organizational structuring.  Jeanne is extremely skilled in the creation and execution of strategic plans for businesses, nonprofit sectors and is experienced in the preparation of printed materials and branding for campaigns and community involvement. 

Jeanne’s strategic skills involve review and analysis of fundraising models with models ranging from human services, museums to economic development organizations.  Jeanne’s organizational skills include relationship building, observation and strong listening skills. Jeanne’s fundraising belief lies in the ongoing communication with donors and helping them to realize their dream of giving back in the manner that feeds their own soul and helps to achieve goals for the organization and ultimately the community.

Jeanne loves to hike, bike, and kayak all around North Carolina along with her newly acquired skill for oil painting.

6 thoughts on “Alumni Feature- Jeanne Johnston (’78) | A New Journey

  1. Thank you Jeanne for your insight and for sharing to all of us. Let me add to the readers that Jeanne is a descendant of Dr. James Johnston (former JMU Chemistry & Physics professor) and his wife Coach Althea Loose Johnston (former JMU women’s basketball coach from 1919-1947 & former head of the Physical Education department), who had a remarkable 106-33 record. Johnston Hall, constructed on the JMU campus in 1929, is named for Jeanne’s family. Mrs. Johnson met JMU’s first president, Dr. Julian Burruss at the initial faculty meeting in 1909, and 7 decades later, witnessed the signing of the bill in 1977 changing the name from Madison College to JMU. The Johnston Family members have a long and distinguished association with JMU.

    Steve Smith ’71


  2. Thanks Steve, my only wish was that my grandmother and grandfather were still around to see me go back to school a second time! But Mrs. Johnston (Miz J to her basketball girls) was thrilled when I graduated from JMU in 1978.
    To everyone else I am planning on coming back for Homecoming in 2018 with my five good friends from JMU-it is a big celebration of our 40th meetup since college!


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