EDINBURGH, Scotland — Out of high school in Fargo at 18 in 2000 and ready for the world, Jo Holtan bundled off to college that fall to Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa. A small liberal arts college founded by the Church of the Brethren in the 19th century, it provided just the right amount of stimulation and freedom for Jo to prosper and grow.

Juniata has a well-known women’s volleyball team thanks to Larry Block, the winningest coach in the sport, and she became something of a star, graduating with an American Volleyball Coaches Association All-American Award. Despite three trips to the Final Four, the top prize was elusive. But the experience was illuminating and a tremendous boost for Jo’s self-confidence.

Thanks to encouragement by an instrumental academic adviser, she did foundational research on pain suffered by women athletes that was duly published and discovered that not only was she good on the court, but equally as good with her nose in a book. A very useful and admirable combination.

Volleyball success opened additional doors. She next moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., as an intern for the American Volleyball Coaches Association, spent some time in Virginia before starting postgraduate studies in Kingston, Jamaica. Her first expat experience brought her face to face with realizations about daily life in a new culture. Having a gun pulled on you while walking to work can ruin your day.

She moved on to finish her degree at Roehampton University in London. While there, she worked for a charity organization that focused on gender-based violence. The degree was a transformative experience, even more so for the lessons learned outside the classroom.

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Exploring the countryside in northern Georgia while working for the Peace Corps. Special to The Forum
Exploring the countryside in northern Georgia while working for the Peace Corps. Special to The Forum

The seeds of travel and international work were firmly planted and after returning for a brief period to Minnesota's Twin Cities, she joined the Peace Corps. Training was completed in Stalin’s hometown of Gori, Georgia, and she began work in Kutaisi, the second largest city there for the USAID-funded John Snow Inc. Healthy Women in Georgia project.

Making kinkali, a pork and beef dumpling recipe, in Kutaisi, Georgia. Special to The Forum
Making kinkali, a pork and beef dumpling recipe, in Kutaisi, Georgia. Special to The Forum

Working for a series of women’s health organizations, she traveled through Georgia working with local health providers. Then, the Russians invaded. Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated to Armenia, and Jo felt guilty for leaving her new friends behind, and her Georgian cat, but returned after many of the Peace Corps volunteers were repatriated to America to continue the work she had started with the Kutaisi-based community organisation HERA. She also worked with a few other returned Peace Corps Volunteers to help displaced people affected by the conflict.

With HERA, Jo worked with local organizations and volunteers to launch the country’s first Susan G. Komen Race for The Cure to raise awareness for early screening of breast cancer. By the end of the project and feeling a bit burnt out, Jo had an opportunity to move to the UK. She realized it was time to leave.

Johanna with Marika Davituliani of HERA and Dorothy Paterson of the Susan G. Komen Foundation in Georgia for the inaugural Race for the Cure. Special to The Forum
Johanna with Marika Davituliani of HERA and Dorothy Paterson of the Susan G. Komen Foundation in Georgia for the inaugural Race for the Cure. Special to The Forum

So, back to the UK. Eventually in Edinburgh, Scotland, after a bit of floundering and then re-centering, she began again to move forward. She ended up at the Edinburgh University Students' Association focusing on global citizenship and international students. And things really began to take off. Her work won several national awards which raised her profile. On the side of her day job, she co-founded the award-winning CycleHack, which became a 50-city global event, launched three TEDx events, and started a consultancy to work with organisations on facilitate creative collaborations.

The launch of TEDxPortobello in Scotland at Tribe Porty with founder Dani Trudeau. Ellie Morag / Special to The Forum
The launch of TEDxPortobello in Scotland at Tribe Porty with founder Dani Trudeau. Ellie Morag / Special to The Forum

“At the first CycleHack event, a team of us created 'Penny in Yo’ Pants,' a very simple idea using a penny and a rubber band to make women’s skirts bike-friendly,” she said. “We made a film demonstrating how Penny works and it went viral, with nearly 4 million views and getting featured in Cosmopolitan magazine, Slate, BBC World Service, Marie Claire and more. It was quite a ride!”

This road with many curves and a few seeming impasses leads to this: Jo is now the program director for the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at Edinburgh University. Aside from the astonishing fact that this is one of the largest grants a Scottish university has received, its aim is important: to provide full study scholarships and transformative leadership training to young people from sub-Saharan Africa who have great potential but few educational opportunities.

“It’s an incredibly inspiring program and I get to work with young people every day who make a real difference to their communities," she said. "I have learned a great deal from them."

Johanna in a selfie welcoming new Mastercard Foundation Scholars to begin study at the University of Edinburgh. Special to The Forum
Johanna in a selfie welcoming new Mastercard Foundation Scholars to begin study at the University of Edinburgh. Special to The Forum

"I feel so grateful for the people I have met and the path that has led me here," she says. "I live with my 17-month-old daughter (named after my great-great-grandmother who emigrated to Iowa from Norway), my lovely partner from Yorkshire who works in design, and my cat I brought back from Georgia. We recently moved to the sea and I commute by bike via old railroad lines, even using a Penny in Yo’ pants once in a while. Life is good."

Leading a discussion about the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program. Ellie Morag / Special to The Forum
Leading a discussion about the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program. Ellie Morag / Special to The Forum

There is always something churning and new things on the horizon for Jo. In addition to the Scholars Program and all its responsibility, she is on the board for a couple local Edinburgh organizations, including Tribe Porty. Tribe is a co-working space in Edinburgh founded by Danielle Trudeau, who’s from Rapid City, S.D.

On becoming fast friends, Jo has been by Dani’s side since the start, sharing her hard work and enthusiasm when needed. We wouldn’t expect anything less, would we?

Johanna and her daughter Olava. Ellie Morag / Special to The Forum
Johanna and her daughter Olava. Ellie Morag / Special to The Forum

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Tales From Afar is an occasional series of profiles and portraits by photographer Murray Lemley of folks with ties to North Dakota and Minnesota now living abroad. Look for more installments in The Forum’s Life section in the coming months, and contact Lemley at murray.lemley@gmail.com.