Samantha Johnson
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Samantha Johnson

Overseas Adventure Travel Trip Leader

It wasn't easy growing up in South Africa under apartheid. Especially if you were the child of a mixed-race marriage. That was exactly the case for Samantha Johnson, whose white South African mother had married a black man from Mozambique. The situation became so difficult, the family left South Africa when Samantha was six years old and relocated to Botswana. Yet, even there, in a tribal society, they still didn't feel that they belonged, so they moved once again, this time to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

"It was very difficult, having to deal with so much negativity in life," Samantha recalls. "But it made me a positive person." That determination to see life's bright side saw Samantha through more turmoil. An only child, she lost her mother when she was a teenager, and her father has also since passed away. Yet, through the tragedies, she has retained her glass-half-full spirit.

Pursuing Her Passion

Just as firmly as she resolved to be happy in life, Samantha committed herself to pursuing the career she yearned for: travel. When she was 16 years old, she finished school and began working for a family in the supermarket business to earn the money she needed to study tourism at night. "My mother never understood why I wanted to be a guide and not a doctor or lawyer," she smiles. "But I've always enjoyed wildlife and the outdoors."

Her first job in the travel industry was with United Touring Company, where she was so successful, she was approached by rival travel company Abercrombie & Kent, where she worked for a decade. Though she enjoyed the job, the time came when she felt it was time to move on. So when the opportunity arose to join OAT as a Trip Leader, she jumped at it. "I love the focus on discovery," she says. "There is so much learning, and I have so much knowledge about the different countries that I enjoy sharing. With OAT, it's all about the culture, and that's what I know, that's how I grew up."

The Samantha Johnson Scholarship Fund

Clearly, Samantha's wealth of knowledge, upbeat spirit, and joy in sharing African culture resonate with the travelers she leads—and with her OAT colleagues. "When I think of Samantha I always think of her positivity, enthusiasm, and real desire to make a difference to her travelers' lives," says Roger Clulow, OAT'S Regional General Manager for Africa. "She really gives 100% on every trip, and this is evident from her always being a top performer. In a very male-dominated environment Samantha stands out as being a true leader and has earned the respect of all of those around her."

Samantha's excellence at her job was evident from the very first time she led OAT's Ultimate Africa: Botswana, Zambia & Zimbabwe Safari. During their visit to the Ngamo School in Zimbabwe, the travelers in her small group were so taken by the children, they decided to set up a scholarship fund. And they named it after their esteemed Trip Leader: Samantha Johnson. "It has changed my life to be able to give back to the children, even though it's not out of my own pocket," Samantha says. "I feel honored."

Today, five years later, the scholarship continues to thrive. "I talk about the Samantha Johnson Scholarship Fund when we visit the school," she says. "The travelers love it. They love being able to contribute."

While OAT travelers are under no pressure to contribute to the Samantha Johnson Scholarship Fund, Samantha credits Grand Circle Foundation for making it easy for those who wish to give. Samantha doesn't handle the donations herself, but rather relies on the Foundation to take care of the logistics, either through credit card forms that have recently been implemented or by directing travelers to Grand Circle's Boston headquarters. "The travelers really appreciate it," she says.

Changing Lives—Including Her Own

What makes the scholarship especially precious to Samantha is knowing what it means for the students who benefit from it. "It makes a great difference in their lives," she says. "At age 13, our children in the village don't go on to secondary school because they are so underprivileged. They go on to become young wives or street kids. The scholarship allows them to say they can go on, because education is so important to overcoming poverty." She goes on to point out that the children are eager to learn, and because they know about the scholarship, they work hard to complete the seventh grade. To date, 22 students have benefited from the fund, with more to come in the future.

Samantha's dedication to promoting education in her homeland has deep roots in her own background. "You have to understand the history of southern Africa," Samantha says. "Under the British, the government was not allowed to educate black children. I was among the first non-whites to get into school, and my mother was a driving force in that. I know how difficult it is to get an education because of that history."

While the laws have changed, in some ways attitudes haven't. "It's not easy for a lot of families to let their children attend school now," says the book lover who spends much of her free time reading. "You have to convince them that now it's OK for them to get an education."

Samantha still loves animals and being outdoors, and it thrills her to see the looks on travelers' faces when they glimpse their first impala. Even more than that, though, she delights in opening windows for her American guests to peer into the local culture—introducing them to different foods, creating opportunities for them to interact with local people, and revealing insights like these.

"It's an honor to work for OAT, doing what I love most," she says. "It's all about culture at the end of the day. I'm proud of my heritage."