Virginia Tech students become familiar with the university’s motto – Ut Prosim (“That I May Serve”) – during their time at the school, and they often participate in any number of community-related or university-sponsored events that reinforce its meaning.
But for a former track and field student-athlete, that motto wasn’t just words. For her, it became a way of life. It became a passion that she still takes to heart today.
Johnna Dominick, who participated in the high jump for the Hokies and graduated with a degree in multimedia journalism in 2015, left Wednesday morning for a trip to Malawi, a land-locked country in the southeastern part of Africa. The 22-hour journey will be taking her to one of the poorest countries on the continent.
Dominick, who owns her own video production company (Johnna Michelle Productions) in Haymarket, Virginia, will be documenting the work done by the non-profit organization “In A Perfect World Foundation.” Started by Manuela Testolini, a former attorney and wife to American R&B singer Eric Benét, this foundation helps at-risk children in high-needs areas by improving education, providing mentoring and offering service learning. The foundation has built more than 25 schools around the world and helped more than 5,000 students.
But Dominick won’t just be spending the next two weeks hoisting her camera and lugging her tripod around, capturing raw footage of the group’s endeavors. She will be getting her hands dirty as well.
Malawi certainly needs her assistance and that of others, too. Business Insider ranked Malawi as the third-poorest country in the world.
“I will be hands-on, helping with every-day tasks,” Dominick said. “Things like solar installations, solar lights, self-composting toilets, clean-water installations, adult literacy programs, women’s sewing classes – men dominate the sewing industry there, can you believe that? – community dental clinics and more.
“I am looking forward to this trip with so much anticipation. I am just ready to have this trip rock my world completely. I am ready to embrace kids and families in the village I am staying in and just show them that they matter by simply walking in their shoes every single day with a smile on my face. I think the thing I am most excited about – next to documenting all of this – is the welcome party that I will get to experience once I am there. I heard that villages have tribes and they throw a huge celebration when guests come. The photos and videos I found of welcome ceremonies there gave me the chills. What an honor to be able to come into their world and experience it all!”
All of this came about because of Dominick’s relationship with “In a Perfect World.” She connected with the foundation years ago when she served as a youth ambassador and helped plan outings to homeless shelters in Washington, D.C. She and friends from her high school wrapped gifts for children, delivered them to the shelter and cooked Christmas meals.
She remained connected with the foundation throughout college, and today, she serves on the foundation’s board as a youth advisor. Testolini reached out to her three weeks ago, asking her to join them on the trip to Malawi to document everything taking place, and Dominick jumped at the opportunity, quickly making last-minute preparations.
To illustrate how sincere Dominick is about helping others, one needs to consider this — she won’t be getting paid for her services on this journey.
“With a non-profit, there is not much of a budget,” she said. “But to me, there is so much more value to life than money, and that is why I continue to do what I do. That is why my passion for capturing stories has and continues to grow every day because I have been able to see first-hand the impact it makes on a life when they have someone who cares – to walk a day in their shoes and just listen.”
As the youngest child of a military family, Dominick is used to traveling, and this marks her fourth trip to an underdeveloped country, following previous expeditions to Haiti, Guatemala and the Philippines.
A mission trek to Haiti really opened her eyes, and in a sense, changed her life. That one came about shortly after the devastating earthquake in 2010, one that left the country practically in ruins. The sights, smells, poverty and general hopelessness of the population overwhelmed her.
“After seeing the situation first-hand, it’s something that I could not just walk away from after one week and forget,” she said. “The homeless people in the United States have it better than the entire working-class population of Haiti. At least, opportunity exists in this country. So, because of this, I make it a priority to continue going abroad and making a direct impact.”
While on her ventures to Haiti, Guatemala and the Philippines, Dominick stayed in a “hotel” or other accommodations of some sort, but Malawi presents a different challenge. She will be staying in a village with a host family – and with no access to running water, electricity, Wi-Fi, etc.
“Good-bye Facebook, Instagram or even texts, for that matter,” she joked.
Not that she minds. In fact, she loves being a part of something much bigger than herself – and her time at Virginia Tech, with its emphasis on serving and with being around student-athletes at other schools, reinforced that.
Tech offers an array of study abroad courses and service learning opportunities for its students. The athletics department also offers opportunities through its student-athlete development area and through its Leadership Institute. Each May, Danny White, a senior associate athletics director, teaches a course on how sport can help with international development, and he takes a small group of students, including student-athletes, abroad to provide that experiential learning.
Dominick, who also holds a master’s degree in broadcast journalism from Maryland, was never able to take White’s course because of her track and field commitments that time of year. Yet with its lengthy season, track and field allowed her to travel and meet people of all walks of life from various backgrounds. It allowed her to experience Ut Prosim in a different way.
All of her experiences combined at Virginia Tech built up her passion for helping others – something she always has valued, and for sure, always will.
“While my time at Virginia Tech taught me a lot about myself, the biggest realization I came to find day in and day out just being a student-athlete was that life is so much better when it’s lived for someone other than yourself,” Dominick said. “The more I got involved in, the more people I connected with, the more people I touched, the better I felt. I gain life by giving it.
“Virginia Tech is where my passion for knowing and seeking the inside of people started – understanding and hearing about their story, because I knew from experience there is always more to someone than meets the eye. My time traveling, and my time meeting and talking to people from all different walks of life through athletics has caused me to develop a very strong desire to help other people of all races and backgrounds, especially those in poverty.
“Experiencing the conditions that I have to date internationally and domestically has caused me to realized that even in a place like America, Haiti, Guatemala or the Philippines, the human spirit is something that cannot be destroyed.”