HARRISON — It took Harrison resident Tucker Johnson at least three trips around the world to realize that he can effect change right here in Maine. Come September, he will embark on his fourth humanitarian trip — this time to India — before he eventually returns to and settles in his home state.
Johnson was recently named a fellow of the American India Foundation William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India. He applied after graduating with degrees in political science and global studies from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina in May. He is one of 33 newly selected fellows chosen from nearly 1,000 applicants, according to a press release from the college.
On Monday, Tucker — who graduated from Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in 2010 — said he was elated when he received the news he had been selected.
“I kind of applied on a whim. I thought if I got through the interview process, it would be a huge accomplishment,” he said. “The interview, I thought I bombed it. … I was so crestfallen so I was pretty surprised when I found out.”
In September, Johnson will head to Kumaon for 10 months, which is a rural region in one of India’s poorest states in the Central Himalayas, according to the college. There he will work on public health and livelihood projects, partnering with the not-for-profit Aarohi organization.
He’s not sure of all the details the work will encompass, but the main goals include advancing health care for maternal-age women and their children, including using basic health care technology, decreasing the infant and female mortality rate, ensuring mothers get regular check ups, as well as clinic and classroom time.
“I am super thankful to be working with them because their interests are up my alley,” Johnson, who’s an emergency medical technician, said. “I have never delivered a baby before but the fellow before (me) apparently delivered three babies. I am excited. I have never come across that.”
From his understanding, the health care challenges include there being only one or two doctors in the area who travel; a lack of counseling during pregnancy, during which complications can arise and frequent power outages that shut off electricity and running water.
“Those are hurdles that need to be navigated for all health care,” Johnson said.
He isn’t worried about living in the rural mountains of Northern India and believes growing up in Western Maine and his time spent abroad has prepared him for the project.
“I really feel it was my love of the outdoors (and) being from Maine, loving the mountains … has really pushed me to be a successful candidate. They were looking for people who could make it in the rural areas,” Johnson said, noting some fellows couldn’t finish their time because they weren’t prepared to live in rural India.
For his first semester at Warren Wilson, he traveled to the southeastern African country of Malawi for several weeks, working with World Camp, which is based in Asheville, N.C., where he taught about HIV and AIDS in rural school environments.
“It was really inspiring and also really hard because I was seeing poverty like I’ve never really seen it before,” Johnson said, noting he witnessed starvation first hand. “It really rocked my world and left me with a lot of questions.”
He also spent three-and-a-half months in Panama where he helped set up a women’s clinic and health care system that’s culturally sensitive to women of child-rearing age. He became sick after contracting a water-borne illness and had to leave the country early. He also lived off the grid in Mexico for a while. He then spent the next three years at Warren Wilson focusing on policy and landed an internship with U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine. This is when the tide turned for Johnson.
He did basic intern stuff but also was able to work on items for constituents. Pingree’s staff had less than 100 people and they took him along to events, he said.
“I felt like I was getting a grasp on the issues Maine was facing. That was eye opening for me. I was thinking globally (and) all this stuff is going on just a couple of miles from where I was every day,” Johnson said. “It was a weird experience because I had all these thoughts of how the world was then I had my boat rocked by Maine.”
Many people talk about the issues in a political sense, but in his experience in Pingree’s office, the residents of his home state simply spoke about the problems they’re facing.
“When I was talking to people on the phone, it wasn’t about politics. It was the fact that someone was in need,” Johnson said. “People are working really hard to help out Mainers. I don’t have to travel half way around the world to get what I want and need.”
Once he returns stateside, the plan is to go to grad school somewhere outside of Maine, probably for a degree in public health. After graduating, Tucker plans to return to his home state to live and work.
“I traveled a lot and have been in North Carolina for four years, it never settled in,” he said. “I think I need to listen to my heart on that one. When I am in Maine and talking to Maine people, I feel more at home than anywhere else.”