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Savannah Johnson

Dean's Award for Excellence in Mentoring
Ph.D. Candidate in Clinical Psychology


Starting in August 2018, Savannah Johnson joined Duke as a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology. She is also pursuing a doctoral certificate in Global Health through the Duke Global Health Institute. She received her B.S. in psychological science and education from Belmont University.

Johnson’s current research focuses on community-centered interventions involving child and adolescent mental health and relationship behaviors. Her dissertation seeks to pilot mental health initiatives and domestic violence prevention for adolescents in Kenya.

Johnson works with Associate Professor Eve Puffer on the Tuko Pamoja Family Project in Kenya. This is a family therapy intervention program for families who have an adolescent experiencing emotional or behavioral issues.

On Mentoring

What does a successful mentoring relationship look like? How do you build such a relationship? 

A successful mentoring relationship includes shared respect and open communication as well as a dedication to getting to know a mentee as a person. Mentors who create a safe environment for curiosity, questions, and, perhaps most importantly, mistakes, can cultivate stronger and more authentic relationships with mentees. Successful mentors are also concerned with supporting and nurturing mentees in a way that helps mentees reach their personal goals, not the goals of the mentor.

How have you evolved as a mentor compared to when you first started mentoring? 

I believe excellent mentors create excellent mentors. As a graduate student, I have been incredibly fortunate to be mentored by Dr. Eve Puffer. As excellent mentorship was modeled for me, I began noticing opportunities to take on the role of mentor and in many ways "pay it forward" with undergraduate or Master's students. In earlier mentoring roles, there was more of a tiered mentoring approach where I would seek advice and support from Dr. Puffer about my mentoring of an undergraduate. Over time, I've developed a greater independence as a mentor which will serve me well as my career continues.

How do graduate students benefit from serving as mentors? 

Serving as mentor as a graduate student has only enhanced my training as well as my research. Including undergraduates on projects and Bass Connections teams has been enriching for the community of the research team and has improved our work. I've learned so much from the individuals I've been fortunate to mentor which is the beautiful reciprocity of mentoring relationships. It is also incredibly rewarding to be able to identify and amplify strengths in another person that they may not have recognized yet.


Excerpts from Johnson's nominations

“As Savannah advanced through the Ph.D. program, she quickly emerged as a leader on our global mental health research team. As she gained experience in fieldwork, including multiple research trips to Kenya, and as she gained publication and presentation experience, I began to ask her to co-mentor other students with me. I soon realized that Savannah was uniquely gifted in this area and supported her in developing more and more independent mentoring relationships.”

“Savannah Johnson is an exemplary mentor—she is the type of mentor that students come to universities such as Duke hoping to find. We have never met anyone more empathetic, genuinely curious, and welcoming. From the very first day of joining her Bass Connections team, her passion for psychology and making an impact in global health was apparent.”

“Savannah’s energy was unmatched and an invaluable asset to our team. From her, I was exposed to the importance of community partnerships and encouraged to consider the ethics of research with socially vulnerable populations and how to gain public trust in the research process.”