Black History Month: Meet Amber Johnson

Hello Everyone! Hope you're having a good day, week, month, and year! It's February still which means it's Black History Month! This year I'm really excited to interview Amber Johnson. Amber is from Jackson, MS, a software engineer, a creative, and an entrepreneur. She was the first black woman to graduate from Purdue University with a PhD in Computer Science in August of last year. Want to know her story? Read on and learn more!

What motivated you to want to get your PhD in Computer Science? Describe the process it took you to apply.

I was introduced to research during my last year of undergrad at LeMoyne-Owen College, and I fell in love with it. Through that experience, I found a mentor while doing research, and he introduced me to the LSMAMP Bridge to the Doctorate program at Jackson State University. The program taught me all about the PhD program and exposed me to opportunities that I otherwise wouldn't have known existed. Later, I learned about the lack of black students to earn doctorate degrees, and that stuck with me. I wanted to contribute to a positive change, but most importantly, I prayed about it. Through faith and God's direction, I pursued the PhD.

Black people don't really major in Computer Science here.

When you applied to Purdue, did you know you would be the first black woman to graduate with a PhD in computer science? Did that impact your decision at all?

I didn't know when I applied. I'd heard some the graduate students say the maybe there had only been 1 other black person to graduate from the CS PhD program, but it didn't stick with me too much. I will say that I was a bit taken back when someone said to me, "Black people don't really major in Computer Science here." I didn't actually believe it to be true. Despite that, I had a Black Panther moment of "I accept your challenge!" What impacted my decision was more-so my experience when I visited the Purdue campus and got to meet with the department chair and had a chance to sit with other graduate students.

Who were the key players that helped you along the way? What was some of the best advice that they gave you?

MENTORSHIP, MENTORSHIP, MENTORSHIP! I can't stress this enough. I had a community of people I could call on, and when I didn't know that I needed them, they called on me!

I knew I was on a mission. I know I was there for a reason, so that kept me going.

What obstacles if any were along the way in your journey? How did you overcome them?

I don't think there's enough space here for me to write them all. I had a few life events, imposter syndrome, and failures. I knew I was on a mission. I know I was there for a reason, so that kept me going. I leaned into those things that gave me joy like playing basketball and cooking. I made sure not to lose myself, and I it a point to learn from everything that happened or didn't happen.

Describe the moment when you finally were award your degree (or defended your dissertation) how did you feel?

My dissertation defense was super dope. There were about 50+ people there cheering me on. I live streamed it on FB live because my research was directly related to COPD, an incurable lung disease that my aunt (who I am very close with) died from just before the start of my 2nd year at Purdue. My family didn't know what I'd been working on, so when I introduced my work to those who could attend in-person, it was very emotional and fulfilling. After I was told that I passed, the hallway lit up with joy and beautiful echos of, "Ayyye ayyyye ayyyyyyyyye!" from all who attended, however, I was just there, chilling.

When it came time for graduation, I felt it all. As I approached the stage, I was cool. When I heard my name called, the flood gates opened, and everything was blurry. My heart poured out through my tear ducts... all of the long nights, heartaches, stress, weight loss, hair loss, worrying, tears.. all that'd gone into those 6 years were done. I had finished. Somehow I made it across the stage but not before holding up (no one actually knew what was happening because I was real cool about it kind of) the graduation line for a couple of minutes to take it all in.

Now that you’ve completed your PhD, what do you do now?

I realized that during my experience at Purdue, I remained myself. I took all of me into every situation I encountered. Had I not, Purdue still wouldn't have had a black woman to graduate with a PhD in CS. From my experiences I created The Kidult Life, an inspirational apparel line that encourages others to embrace their kid at heart. As kids we were fearless and curious, taking on just about any challenge that comes our way. We’re usually taught to try new things and make friends with other kids by simply walking up to another kid and playing. As time passes, we take on various identities that eventually define who we are, often introducing fear and diminishing the curiosity that once made life simple. In addition to that I am also a software engineer at Northrop Grumman.

What advice do you have for anyone who sees no one that looks like them in their career or classroom?

You don't need anyone to look like to be who you are. You add a little more beauty to the canvas by just being you!

Wow. Honestly I am so inspired as I've written this post and I hope you are too! Thank you Amber for letting me share your story. If you'd like to connect with Amber, you can also follow her on twitter.