Mera Johnson, M.P.A. '04, Credits Her Parents for Instilling the Values of Education and Service

By Tony Scott

Mera Johnson, assistant village manager and human resources director for the Village of Clarendon Hills, Illinois, is a graduate of NIU's M.P.A. program, now celebrating its 60th year.

Mera Johnson’s parents instilled in her and her siblings the value and power of an education, and after earning her Master of Public Administration degree from NIU in 2004, she has built a strong career in public service.

Johnson, who currently serves as the assistant village manager and human resources director for the Village of Clarendon Hills, Illinois, was born in Panama and spent her youth in the Caribbean before moving to Pittsburgh for college. 

“My dad is from Belize and worked as a Methodist minister,” she said. “As part of that itinerate system the church moves you around. I was born in Panama and lived in Belize, Jamaica, Guyana and Madison, New Jersey.”

A gifted athlete, Johnson attended the University of Pittsburgh on a track and field scholarship and received a bachelor’s degree in political science. 

However, after graduation, she realized that she needed a master’s degree to do something other than low-paying work in political campaigns.

“After graduating from Pitt, my husband at the time was working for Caterpillar in DeKalb,” she said. “I quickly realized that the salary for someone with a bachelor’s degree in political science was very low and many of the jobs were in politics as a staffer or campaign worker, which I was not interested in.”

Johnson applied for the M.P.A. program at NIU, which at the time had a tuition waiver for those who had an internship. She said the internship she had at the Village of Northfield, Illinois and its village manager, Mark Morien, during her years at NIU was invaluable. 

“I got to do many projects and even just sit in on meetings that helped give me very practical experience,” she said. “Some examples of projects I did were salary surveys, renegotiating the village's garbage contract renewal, helping with police department accreditation and fire department response time analysis.”

Johnson praised the professors she had, saying her favorite class was Human Resources Management taught by Dr. Gerald T. Gabris. 

“I also had some wonderful experiences in class and at program events with Dr. Vicki Clarke, who was advisor to the M.P.A. program, and Dr. Don Menzel, the director at the time,” she said.

Johnson and her husband lived in Aurora and she commuted to NIU’s DeKalb campus to take classes.

“While I did not get involved with campus life, I later enjoyed being part of a group of African American M.P.A. alumni that raised funds for the David and Catherine Arnold Fellowship, which supports minority students attending conferences,” she said.

After graduating from the M.P.A. program, she was hired as the human resources generalist for the Village of Montgomery, Illinois. She said she enjoyed hiring her own M.P.A. program interns while working for Montgomery.

“It felt great introducing them to local government and giving them those projects that would serve them throughout their entire career,” she said.

She credits her boss in Montgomery, Anne Marie Gaura, ’89, M.P.A. ’91, for being a mentor and influence for her and others. 

Johnson said she values a spirit of outreach and volunteerism from growing up in the church. She sees a similar thread through working for local government. 

“Working for a municipality you are helping that community in various ways, from constructing a new municipal building, to water main replacement or assisting with the celebration of a milestone anniversary,” she said. “The residents decide, and I help make that vision a reality. I very much admire anyone who runs for local government office. They are volunteering their time and talents for very little or no monetary compensation and in today’s environment sometimes face pressure, scrutiny and criticism that unnecessarily politicizes everyday issues that we should be united on as community members.”

After taking an eight-year period off to raise her family, she later held positions at Kane County, Kendall County and the City of Geneva, Illinois, before being hired by Clarendon Hills in June 2023.

“I did step away from local government for eight years to spend time raising my kids because of evening meetings and the rigid work schedule,” she said. “I credit my M.P.A. degree from Northern for giving me the ability to jump right back into local government. My parents were right about the value of a degree.”

Johnson said her two sisters also have college degrees – one is a nurse and the other earned a Ph.D. in ecology. All three were inspired by their parents and upbringing, she said.

“They always instilled the value of an education and would frequently say no one can take your diplomas and degrees away from you, you will always have it and the knowledge you gained from it,” she said.