Spring grad Eric’el Johnson blazes trails at UMSL, builds bright future at Boeing
It was a monumental weekend for University of Missouri–St. Louis graduate Eric’el Johnson. Spring commencement was the culmination of so many things for her, but most importantly, she fulfilled a promise she had made to her mother years ago.
“I come from a working-class family,” Johnson said. “So I made a promise to my mom before I graduated from high school that she wouldn’t have to pay for college and that I would get my degree. I’ve worked really, really hard to make that come true.”
She did more than come through on both promises. Johnson received a selective, full-ride scholarship through UMSL’s Opportunity Scholars Program. She used it to fund her education in the UMSL/Washington University in St. Louis Undergraduate Joint Engineering Program and earn her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering along with a Pierre Laclede Honors College certificate.
But she did so much more at UMSL than earn a degree. Johnson filled her time with three summer internships at Boeing, a co-op at Emerson and numerous campus commitments. She was president of the Golden Key International Honour Society, president of Society of Future Engineers, vice president and treasurer of the Pierre Laclede Honors College Student Association, lead ambassador for UMSL Ambassadors, a program chair for University Program Board, a teaching assistant, an engineering tutor and a first-year experience mentor for incoming freshmen.
“I wanted to set an example for my little sisters,” said Johnson, whose sisters are 16 and 14. “I always thought, ‘I’m doing well right now, and I can manage it, so I don’t see why I should stop. Better to keep going while I’m being successful.’”
And successful she has been. Johnson graduated with a job already lined up at Boeing as part of the Engineering Career Foundation Program.
“I had an advantage when I was applying for ECFP,” she said. “They looked at my experience and saw that I worked at different parts of the Boeing lifecycle during my internships, which complemented what they were looking for.
“It’s also cool because the people that are involved in the ECFP, I’ve encountered them already at some point during my internships. It helps to be there over and over again so people can see your face.”
But beyond helping land Johnson her job, she felt she learned valuable professional lessons she could have taken with her anywhere.
“I had a lot of the technical knowledge, but going into it I realized there was a lot that I didn’t know,” she said. “Like, I had to be able to talk to other people and not be afraid to ask questions. Things I didn’t learn in engineering classes – like the soft skills – I picked up while I was working. Now I’m a more well-rounded person. It’s great if I know all the technical stuff, but if I don’t know how to explain it and address people, it doesn’t help anyone.”
Johnson stressed that growing into a professional adult wasn’t something she practiced in work environments only. Being involved with her peers on campus proved just as prudent in building people skills.
“You probably wouldn’t think this, but I’m a huge introvert,” Johnson said. “I’m a very quiet person. But through UMSL Ambassadors I’ve been able to learn how to reach out and talk to people. Because of them, I’ve had the opportunity to speak at the chancellor’s house in front of the Chancellor’s Council.”
Johnson also helped build the Undergraduate Research Symposium offered through Golden Key, which she teasingly called “her baby.”
“I like what Golden Key is about,” she said. “I like its three pillars: Academics. Leadership. Service. Plus, URS really gives people an opportunity to present their research in a mock-professional manner. Really, I like mentoring others and helping others be the best that they can be.”
Johnson’s attitude and efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. She was named Student Leader of the Year as well as a 2016 UMSL Trailblazer. As an African American woman in engineering, demographically she knows she is a trailblazer, but she doesn’t get hung up on the ways she is a minority overcoming stereotypes or odds.
“It’s really weird because I honestly don’t think about it,” Johnson said. “For me, I’m going to do it, and no one is going to stop me. As long as I have my goals in mind, I’m just going to reach for them.”
One of those goals is to return to the Joint Engineering Program as an adjunct instructor.
“I want to be a representative for some of the minorities,” she said. “I want to be a different face and allow students like me to say, ‘Hey there’s one professor that looks like me.’”
Johnson’s thankful to her mother, who was only 18 years old when she had Johnson and pushed her to have big dreams and work hard.
“She’s an amazing woman. Very smart,” Johnson said. “She always thinks you should raise your children to do better than yourself. Even if you’ve done great things, your children can still do better because they have that foundation you provided for them.”
It seems Johnson is certainly off to a wonderful start.
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