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Alumna earns degree from Alaska

Mon Dec 20, 2021 at 10:35 AM

So many things tried to disrupt Randee Johnson as she completed her online Environmental Health and Safety program at Oakland University. Having children, starting a business and even cancer couldn’t stop her from finally earning her diploma this summer. However, without an online program, Johnson said she’s not sure she could have earned the degree. 

Finding a program that fit

A summer internship changed the course of Johnson’s life. After serving as an intern for a safety manager, Johnson knew she wanted to go into safety management. 

“When I first started college, I went to school in Maine for economics and I wanted to be a banker,” said Johnson, an Alaska native. She moved home for the summer and learned of a friend who needed a summer intern helping with safety management. Once she started the internship, she changed her plans and her major. 

Johnson transferred to Trinidad State Junior College, an online program out of Colorado, to earn her associate degree in safety. 

“At that time, there wasn’t a bachelor’s program in Alaska for safety. When I graduated from Trinidad State Junior College, they had a matriculation agreement with OU to transfer your credits and complete your degree online,” said Johnson. OU’s Environmental Health and Safety program is ABET accredited, which was also important to Johnson. 

Returning to the classroom

Johnson said she jumped into OU’s EHS program right after completing her associate degree. She took one class a semester and completed four to five classes before taking a break after her youngest child was born and she started her own safety company. 

Taking classes online was appealing, but not without challenges. 

“All of my classes were in a different time zone. Sometimes I’d have live lectures or group projects in the middle of the day,” said Johnson. 

Then came the pandemic and everything else came to a screeching halt. 

“William Daniels (senior academic advisor in the School of Health Sciences) contacted me out of the blue. He called right when COVID first happened and encouraged me to get back into the classes. I told him all of my problems. I told him I wasn’t getting credit for certain classes that I had already taken for my associate degree and scheduling was difficult,” said Johnson. Daniels asked if he could help. Johnson was skeptical but said yes. “He figured out exactly what classes I needed, got me a grant and it basically came down to three semesters of classes to earn my bachelor’s degree, so I decided to go for it. He just ran me out of excuses.”

Johnson completed her degree in August 2021 and said it gave her a huge sense of accomplishment, allowed her to show her kids that you can accomplish anything you want and having a bachelor’s degree is important to her business and if she ever wants to get a corporate safety job. 

Johnson owns and runs the company SafeLogic Alaska. Her team of five provides safety management, completes safety training and runs safety programs for construction companies, aviation cargo companies and even Alaska Communication Systems, the biggest internet and wireless phone service provider in Alaska. 

“When my company applies for safety jobs, they put my full resume in the proposal. Now that I have my degree, it shows I have even more of an education. I can also now get two certifications that require a bachelor’s degree, the Certified Industrial Hygienist and CIM, certified in management,” said Johnson. 

Medical emergency

It sounds like those three semesters worth of classes went smoothly and quickly, but that wasn’t the case. When the end of her program was in sight, Johnson was dealt another challenge. Just one week into her last semester, finishing her last class, she was diagnosed with stage 3C ovarian cancer.

“I had broken my back in March (2021) in three places and also five ribs in a snowmobile accident,” said Johnson. “I had to recover from it and I just wasn’t feeling well in my belly and it didn’t seem like it was related to the accident.”

Her doctors tried to reassure her that it was just trauma to her abdomen from the accident, but Johnson didn’t feel confident. So, over Fourth of July weekend, still feeling badly, Johnson went to a larger hospital emergency room. 

“The doctor came in and did a blood test and a pregnancy test and got a CT scan of my abdomen,” said Johnson. “When he came in with the results, his face was completely changed and he walked up to me and put his hand on my wrist.”

Johnson said she knew the news wasn’t good. He told her it was cancer and provided her with a referral to an oncologist. 

“I thought ‘I’m 36, a single mom and super healthy, yet I have cancer. My belly is full of cancer,’” said Johnson. Within two days, Johnson had an eight-hour surgery to remove 7-pounds of tumors as well as several impacted organs. She started chemotherapy about a week after surgery and wrapped up her last session on Friday, Nov. 19. She will have a two-year maintenance medication to prevent recurrence. 

Support system

Johnson said her boyfriend, family, clients and her employees were “phenomenal” and “supportive.” 

“My employees held down the fort and they all stepped up and took on more responsibility. My clients have been so understanding. There were Meal Trains and fundraisers and friends that stepped up. I could not have managed to do any of it without the help of all those people,” said Johnson. 

Johnson said Tom Schenk, director of the Environmental Health and Safety program, was also helpful as she finished up her last class. 

“When I was in the hospital, trying to finish my last class, I was having trouble turning in my late work. Tom Schenk helped me get an exception to turn in my work and graduate on time. If there was a different person in his role, anyone of those things could have prevented me from finishing,” said Johnson. 

That last class turned out to be helpful as she recovered. It was Laughter as a Therapeutic Modality. 

“It was really weird timing. I just found out I had cancer, I had a huge surgery, I almost died and for my class, I needed to watch comedies and read about how laughing, positivity and humor could change the outcome of an illness. It really made an impression on me,” said Johnson. 

For more information on the School of Health Science’s Environmental Health and Safety program or any of the other online programs offered by Oakland University, visit the Online Programs webpage.