IAspire leadership program supports engineering manager, students on path to success

Rachael Johnson can relate to the students she’s recruiting to the Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering.

Johnson was 16 when she became emancipated and left home, and she navigated her college search largely on her own. So when students talk about the stress they’re under? She gets it.

A picture of Rachael Johnson holding a sign that articulates her commitment to helping students.
Rachael Johnson, who leads the enrollment, access and equity team in the Walter Scott, Jr., College of Engineering, was the only non-Ph.D. selected to participate in the 2019-2020 iAspire program.

“So many students are marginalized by educational systems that were not set up to benefit them. But it is these students who bring the grit, resilience, and life experience critical to innovation in engineering,” said Johnson, who leads the enrollment, access, and equity team in the Don and Susie Law Engineering Success Center. “We have a responsibility to right some of these injustices. We have a responsibility to make sure everyone has the opportunity and support to pursue their dreams.”

She knows how rigorous engineering can be – she was this close to being an engineer, even achieving a full-ride scholarship to Cornell to study aerospace engineering. But after working two jobs while finishing high school in Athens, Georgia, she needed a gap year to recover. Then she became pregnant with her son, and suddenly the idea of Cornell seemed a little stressful.

“I was looking for a fresh start somewhere new and found Fort Collins on a list of Top 10 places to raise a family. I thought if I can give him a better shot, I should look at this place,” she said.

So in 2004, she showed up at student orientation with her 8-month old baby in tow, just three days after moving to Colorado. “I was more concerned with finding quiet places to breastfeed than trying to connect with other students.”

Johnson will forever be grateful to the orientation advisor who encouraged her to establish in-state residency before starting at CSU, then worked with her over the next year as she enrolled in online classes at Front Range Community College, ensuring everything would transfer seamlessly.

When she returned to CSU for transfer student orientation in 2005, it was as a brand new Colorado resident eligible for in-state tuition. She discovered a love of the liberal arts while taking core curriculum courses in philosophy and sociology, and eight years later, she finished her bachelor’s degree in Ethnic Studies. Her son was there to watch her walk across the stage at Moby Arena.

A group picture of the 2019-2020 iAspire participants.
The 2019-2020 iAspire class.

“It’s come full circle, now that he is 17 and we’re beginning his college search. As a single mom I brought him everywhere, so he grew up alongside me on this campus. I love that CSU is one of the top schools he is considering as he’s looking into engineering programs.”

For Johnson, returning to campus six years ago in a professional role felt like coming home. “CSU’s Native American Cultural Center was the place where I first experienced as a real sense of community and belonging in Colorado,” said Johnson, who identifies as Indigenous Caribbeana, with roots in Panama, Barbados, and Europe.

Before joining the Don and Susie Law Engineering Success Center in 2017, Johnson worked as communications director for CSU’s College of Liberal Arts and as a consultant for Bubar and Hall Consulting, LLC, a Native American firm.

In her current role, she leads the team that manages recruitment, outreach and diversity programs in engineering, including first-year peer mentoring, summer camps and the ENpower Bridge Program that gives incoming first-year, underrepresented students the opportunity to learn campus before classes start.

ASPIRE program helps students succeed

This fall, Johnson graduated from IAspire, a leadership development program funded by the National Science Foundation to improve diversity in STEM, particularly as it relates to student learning and persistence.

Johnson was the only non-Ph.D., non-faculty member selected for the first IAspire cohort in 2019. Melissa Burt, Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion and a scientist in the Department of Atmospheric Science, was recently selected to participate in the 2020 class.

As part of Johnson’s leadership grant, she created a new math “boot camp” to prepare students for calculus, which can often be a barrier for students who want to be in engineering. The first camp was expected to occur this past summer, but was postponed because of the pandemic.

“My leadership style, because I am a queer woman of color, is very different from many of the leaders around me,” she said. “I’ve gained confidence in myself as a leader through the IAspire program. I understand what I bring to the table and how to leverage my strengths to support my team and lead organizational change. It has been especially valuable to learn alongside other leaders from underrepresented backgrounds – people I can relate to.”

“As an emerging leader in enrollment and access in higher education, the IAspire program represented an extraordinary opportunity for Rachael to develop a network with other emerging leaders in STEM education.  Rachael’s approach is strategic, collaborative and customer-driven, and her efforts have produced dramatic results,” said Anthony Marchese, Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs. “Her enthusiasm, passion for access to higher education, commitment to diversity and professional approach is apparent to everybody at CSU.”

In her time with the college, Johnson has received the college’s Rising Star Award and the CSU Multicultural Faculty and Staff Distinguished Service Award.

“I absolutely love the team in engineering – that understanding of the importance of access, the importance of student success. Over half of our leadership in the college were first-generation students and care from the heart.”

And even though engineering wasn’t the right pathway for her, she’s grateful for her journey and where it’s led.

“The way I see it, I get the best of both worlds. I was able to pursue my passion in liberal arts, and now I get to work with some truly incredible engineers.”