Sue Johnston

BA '99

Arts grad discusses books and life with Oprah

Sue Johnston.Every day millions of people across the world tune into the relationship/spirituality guru Oprah Winfrey. Dazzling audiences with her honesty, cheek and dynamic personality, many long to be in Oprah's presence. Counsellor and writer, Sue Johnston, BA '99 didn't just dream about appearing on the show, she did something about it. In 2002, Johnston found herself on the set of the Oprah Winfrey Show as a book club guest, chatting to Oprah with an ease that will make the day forever etched in her memory.

Sue Johnston as she appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show Johnston was invited to appear on the show after she wrote a letter to Oprah - a letter that clearly made an impression. While completely out of character for her to write the letter, Johnston believes that some things happen for a reason.

There are pivotal points, days of distinction, perhaps even years of distinction that stand out in our lives,

and for Johnston

studying at Waterloo and meeting Oprah were two life-changing experiences. Each brought about a transformation of character, strengthened my spirit and expanded my soul.

In Johnston's pre-university life, she would never have dreamed of writing to Oprah as she was incredibly shy and self-conscious. Yet things started to change in 1993 when Johnston made a huge decision to leave her unhappy marriage. Previous to the divorce, she and her husband operated a business together but once separated, she was left with the decisions of where to live, where to find a job and where her future was headed.

That was when she discovered Waterloo's Distance Education program - a place she could start without having all those major decisions in place. The distance education program offered her freedom, which helped her to refocus her energy and take control over her life.

Yet Johnston had to overcome a significant barrier: she hadn't completed high school. While determined to get a degree so she could be a counsellor and make a positive impact in people's lives, the thought of studying at Waterloo was frightening. As a mature student, Waterloo accepted her on condition that she complete her first four courses with a mark of 65 per cent or higher. Raising two daughters as a single mother, working part time and studying "presented a number of challenges," but Johnston was determined. She developed a study plan, revising it as life's hurdles appeared, but says

I always kept the vision of the goal before me.

Not only did Johnston do better than her 65 per cent but she completed every single social work course Waterloo had to offer. The distance education courses suited her lifestyle so well that she never took an on-campus course. Even without meeting the professors face to face, the assignment feedback motivated her -- providing encouragement, a sense of satisfaction and at times a challenge to do better. She says it was "these small rewards that provided the fodder to keep the whole process in motion." After five years, Johnston arrived on campus to receive her Bachelor of Arts at the fall convocation ceremony in 1999. That day, Rension College also awarded her with two social work certificates.

Since the distance education model suited her so well, Johnston pursued and received her MA in Counselling with Trinity College and Seminary in the US, all through distance education. The years of study and sacrifice have been worth it as Johnston has reached her goal - she has a private counselling practice in Orangeville, Ontario.

Johnston credits her university experience at Waterloo with developing her self-confidence. A history of abuse and a bad marriage had created a person that was shy, insecure and afraid of taking risks. The feedback she received about her abilities and skills while in school bolstered her self-esteem which one day led to writing her letter to Oprah Winfrey.

After reading an Oprah book club selection and sending Oprah an email, she received a phone call from one of Oprah's producers saying, "We liked your email." Two telephone interviews later, Johnston answered the phone to hear the amazing question:

Would you like to have lunch with Oprah?

In early 2002, Johnston found herself in Oprah's studio with two other Canadians and two Americans preparing to tape the 45th book club show. They were discussing fellow Canadian Anne Marie MacDonald's novel Fall on Your Knees. While in the green room, Johnston expected some dramatic fan fare when Oprah arrived however she simply walked in and greeted everyone warmly. Johnston says

Oprah has a talent for making you feel like you are the most important person in the room.

Perhaps energized by the circumstances of being on television, an unusual boldness came over Johnston and she began to ask Oprah questions about the show and her life. Oprah graciously followed her lead and their conversation flowed naturally during the show. After the taping, the guests joined Oprah and author MacDonald at a studio dining room. Johnston was delighted to be assigned the seat to Oprah's left, "however the whole experience was too wonderful and exciting to eat." Johnston discussed writing and publishing with MacDonald while she and Oprah shared intimate similarities between their pasts. At the end of their time together, Oprah encouraged Johnston to "go out and make a difference with my life as this is only the beginning."

And Johnston is doing just that - through the people she counsels and in her writing. She is the author of two novels, After the Lure and Signatures of the Soul.

Written by Jude Doble, Office of Alumni Affairs

Affiliation: 
University of Waterloo

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