John Lucas: From West Africa to Puyallup

Political science professor shares stories about research in Africa, passion to teach

Alex HeldrichReporter

Professor John Lucas, who instructs business and social sciences at Pierce College Puyallup, has a passion for working with students and West Africa, which is evident in his teaching. As an undergraduate he spent time in Sierra Leone, a country in West Africa, through an exchange program. Since he loved it there so much, he returned as a graduate student to do research in Nigeria. He said that his time in Africa has had a major impact on his teaching.

“West Africa is just so exciting and the people there just seem to have a lot of energy,” Lucas said. “Somebody described Nigeria as the best place in the world and the worst place in the world. It’s this really extreme and difficult environment. The way that some people react to such an extreme environment brings out their worst and they do terrible things. But the way that other people react to this really extreme environment brings out this generosity and tenacity and a sense of humor about things.”

Lucas believes that all of the difficulties of living in West Africa are worth it because of the reward of interacting with the interesting and exciting people who live there.

His research topic was on business associations in northern Nigeria.

“One of the big questions for Africa, because over the last 50 years a lot of places that were really poor in the world started to develop except for Africa, was why?” Lucas said. “So I was trying to figure out what was happening so we could find a path forward for people in Africa to start remaking their politics in ways that would help them escape this terrible trap that they’d found themselves in.”

People in Africa are a lot like people in America, as they both love to join clubs, make associations and be involved with their community, Lucas said.

“Even the beggars have their own association,” Lucas said. “They actually pool all of their money and send one of their beggars to Mecca every year since (Nigeria) a Muslim (nation).”

Since he was researching business associations, Lucas got to talk with many of the small business owners such as the onion sellers and mechanics that reside in the markets.

Talking to all of the people is what significantly influenced Lucas’ teaching.

“People always have these conceptions about West Africa that are very simplistic,” Lucas said. “When I came in for every conception I had, the reality would be so much more complex. I started to really realize that people in particular are never going to be as simple as you think. And so it teaches you how to pay attention to what’s really going on instead of this superficial generalization and I think that lesson has been really useful, especially with students.”

From Africa, he took away the need to be humble about what he knows and realized that the real situation will always be more complex.

“You may be like, ‘oh look at that person sitting in the back with a baseball cap pulled over his face, they’re not going to work hard,’ but they might be the best person in the class,” Lucas said. “Or maybe I think, ‘oh this person isn’t doing their assignment, they aren’t hard working,’ but they are hard working, they’ve got three jobs which is why they aren’t doing the reading for my class.”

Working at Pierce as a professor was never his ‘big plan,’ but he knows now that it’s the exact place that he wants to be. He’s found that a lot of people his age don’t feel the same passion about their career as he does. He admires the uniqueness of each class that he teaches and their different reactions to the material.

“The students are definitely my favorite part about teaching,” Lucas said. “It’s like any other job where some parts are good and some parts are a real hassle, but then I’ll go into the classroom and it’ll be almost therapeutic and I think, ‘this is why I put up with everything.’”

Outside the classroom, Lucas enjoys playing the accordion. Twice a month, he meets with his old instructor to play music with her.

“It’s my favorite (non-college related) activity and my family’s least favorite,” Lucas said. “Accordions are sort of interesting because they have this vibrating sound that’s always tuned a little bit off. I like that little bit of dissonance. It’s like there’s two notes going, but they’re just disagreeing a little bit in the middle, which is a lot like politics, really.”

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John Lucas: From West Africa to Puyallup

by Alex Heldrich time to read: 3 min