Payton Johnson

Globally Minded: St. Thomas Alumna Earns Congress-Bundestag Scholarship

University of St. Thomas German and environmental sciences double major Payton Johnson ’22 wasn’t interested in choosing between her two passions after graduation. Instead, she figured out how to pursue both.

This summer, Johnson makes a trip across the globe as a fellow in the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program for Young Professionals. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and Germany’s Parliament, this highly competitive governmental exchange program provides young professionals like Johnson a year-long, fully funded opportunity to study, work and live in Germany as a citizen ambassador.

While abroad, Johnson will study environmental sciences at a German university and complete a six-month internship in her field, all while fully immersed, living with a German host family. For this double major, it’s the best of both worlds.

A Duluth, Minnesota, native, Payton Johnson' 22 said growing up in Northern Minnesota, camping and spending time in the outdoors, led her to environmental sciences and her focus on biology.

“I feel really honored…it was just so exciting,” Johnson said about earning a spot in the program. “I think it'll allow me to make connections between both fields [environmental science and German] and the different skills I developed studying both these pathways.”

The scholarship is the culmination of an application process that started in February, one St. Thomas faculty, including Susanne Wagner, PhD, professor in the Modern and Classical Languages Department, have cheered her success in.

“Payton has been looking for ways to join her two passions and her enthusiasm for fieldwork,” Wagner said. “The Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program for young professionals (CBYX) presents the perfect opportunity to start off an interdisciplinary and global career. This highly competitive program indeed is one of the most prestigious awards a student of German can receive, and I am so very proud of her.”

Our world, our planet

Having studied German in high school and even visited the country as a teenager, Johnson registered for a course in her first semester at St. Thomas. Finding herself among a tight-knit group of German students, she was hooked. Her St. Thomas courses connected her to the German American community in St. Paul. She and other Tommies interviewed Holocaust survivors and they spent a J-Term studying abroad in Germany. All these experiences as a Tommie, Johnson said, set her up for the Congress-Bundestag program, which emphasizes building relationships and intercultural proficiency.

University of St. Thomas students hold a school flag while on a study abroad trip to Germany
Payton Johnson' 22 holds a University of St. Thomas flag with other St. Thomas students studying German while on a J-Term abroad program in the country.

“A big part of learning German isn't just language: it's learning about culture,” Johnson explained. “It’s about thinking globally, thinking inter-culturally and thinking about history when you're talking to people from different places. That will definitely help me make meaningful connections with people in Germany.”

The fellowship starts with a Washington, D.C. orientation before the program’s 75 American participants go to Germany for two months of language intensive courses. The participants, who have interests ranging from cinematography to international business and culinary arts to environmental studies, will spend the remainder of the program at schools and later internships that match their field of study.

A Duluth, Minnesota, native, Johnson said growing up in Northern Minnesota, camping and spending time in the outdoors, led her to environmental sciences and her focus on biology.

“I like thinking about the environment and the world and our impact on that. Climate change, biodiversity and conservation just feel really important to me,” Johnson said.

In Germany, she aims to build on her field research in geology, ecology and food web dynamics.

“I gained all these skills which are super important for this program because they want people who are applying to be professionals," Johnson said. "They want you to be able to go to Germany and actually do a job, so my experience really set me up for that.”

As she looks forward to her next adventure, Johnson said her journey so far has unfolded gradually, and she’s learned to embrace the unknown.

“I just really want to encourage people to follow things that they think are exciting, even if it's a long shot. Your life can look however you want to,” Johnson said.