Donella Johnson stands in amid models of planes in a museum on the Boeing campus in St. Louis

Donella Johnson graduated from UMSL in 2020 and in three years has become a project manager at Boeing. (Photo by Derik Holtmann)

The prospect of landing an internship at Boeing was all Donella Johnson needed to focus her studies as she began working toward her degree in accounting at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

“‘Their internship is going to occur in the upcoming summer, and in order for you to be eligible, you’re going to have to have a GPA of 3.5 by the end of your first semester,’” Johnson remembers her advisor, Susan Moody, saying. “I used that to motivate myself.”

She got the internship working as a financial analyst through Boeing’s FLITE  – Future Leaders in Thought and Experience – Program, which partners with UMSL, Howard University, Saint Louis University and Truman State University, giving 12 diverse students a paid opportunity to work at the company over a summer and receive professional development.

Johnson used that internship to get in the door at Boeing, which helped launch her career. After later internships at Boeing and Ernst & Young and a contract position at Edward Jones, she returned to the aerospace manufacturer full-time in 2021 and now works as a project manager leading a team of 12 people.

“I’ve benefitted from the program in so many ways – expanding my network, diversifying my skillset and making a difference within my community,” she said. “FLITE allowed me to discover my passion, which is developing people.”

In a full circle moment, Johnson also now manages the FLITE Program, in which three UMSL students, Kara Johnson, Eric Schroeter and Akilah Robinson, are now participating.

“As a program manager of the FLITE Program, I continue to advocate and provide guidance to students navigating their college and intern careers,” she said. “I enjoy managing the program because I am able to pay it forward. I have the opportunity to truly develop peers and incoming interns.”

Some of Johnson’s responsibilities with the program include working with external business partners, developing new program plans and connecting with alumni to identify ways they can support the program.

She’s been impressed by the participating students’ curiosity and willingness to go above and beyond their responsibilities. The students, she believes, have been inspired by her success to achieve their own.

The St. Louis native graduated from UMSL in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a minor in information systems and technology.

Her interest in accounting began while attending Ritenour High School. Her mother was battling an illness and she feared that someday she’d need to be able to take care of the finances.

“In my mind, I was just like, ‘Well, I need to learn it because if something happens, then what?’” Johnson said. “I said, ‘I am kind of managing my finances at home, and I want to learn how to do it from a business sense.’”

While in high school, Johnson participated in the UMSL’s Bridge Program, which provides precollegiate programming for St. Louis area high school students and parents. That experience peaked her interest in attending the university because she felt welcomed.

“I really enjoyed the community the campus offered,” she said. “It really felt like home. I also enjoyed that I had a chance to sit in on different classrooms. I was provided with an overview of what it would look like to be a student on campus. The ratio of professors and students I think was 20 or 25 students to one professor. The class sizes weren’t so huge where I felt like I was just a number.”

UMSL’s affordability, her experience in the Bridge Program and the scholarship she received that helped her graduate debt-free made the university her top college choice.

With a relentless ambition to succeed, she continued participating in internships at Boeing and Ernst & Young each year until graduating.

Her first job out of college was at Edward Jones as a tax technical specialist. After that contract role ended, she landed a full-time position at Boeing, working first in the Business Career Foundation Program, where new employees can rotate and work in different departments, gaining big picture knowledge of the organization.

“I had six different jobs supporting various areas of the business – compliance, human resources, quality and supply chain,” Johnson said. “My last rotation was actually in program management, which is where I fell in love with it all.”

Now, Johnson is leading a team comprised of engineering, operations, quality and finance professionals, who work out of one of three composite centers in the country, ensuring the production of a folded wingtip for the 777X  aircraft. One of her team members is Paige Risenhoover, another UMSL graduate, who also participated in the FLITE Program.

Johnson believes in leading with influence, developing others and making a difference, and in her spare time, she serves on the board of The WAY Center, which helps K-5 youth in St. Louis enhance their academic and wellness goals.

Her experiences at UMSL enhanced her leadership abilities.

“I’m naturally an extrovert,” she said, “but there have been times where I was quiet or more conservative in nature. I think UMSL helped build my confidence.

“I feel like it was very magical in a way. It was a humbling experience in which the people I met throughout each year of my time really helped me become the person I am today. What I am today is driven by my personality and the decisions I’ve made along the way, but I think wholeheartedly being a part of UMSL really created a foundation for myself.”

For anyone considering UMSL, Johnson wants them to understand that the university is far more than the buildings that make up the campus. Attending UMSL can be as transformational to others as it’s been for her.

“UMSL expands beyond the four walls of St. Louis,” she said. “You can meet people from all over the globe. You aren’t just in a small community. UMSL is bigger than what you can imagine.”

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Wendy Todd

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