Being devoted to public service in a variety of ways has long motivated Lois Johnson, a junior in Georgia Tech’s Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE). In this interview, she discusses her various leadership roles on Tech’s campus, the Federal Jackets Fellowship that enabled her to intern this past fall at the White House, and the inspiration that came from meeting President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama while she was there.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you ended up at Georgia Tech.
I am originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, but my formative years were spent in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Oak Ridge was the geographical center of the Manhattan Project during World War II, and our local economy still heavily relies on scientific research and development.
Our public high school had fantastic efforts to expose its students to the positive impact that pursuing STEM careers could have on our local community, country, and world. So, my incredible and influential teachers at Oak Ridge High School (ORHS), as well as a good friend and Yellow Jacket from ORHS, inspired me to attend Georgia Tech, as a relatively close and prestigious, technologically focused university.
You have said, to use your words, that you are “a proponent of servant leadership.” What shaped your perspective in this regard?
To me, servant leadership consists of devoting my time and my career to advancing others and their well-being. I’d be lying if I didn’t credit a lot of my interest in being a public servant to President Obama. I am so lucky to have grown up the past eight years with a president who has always empowered and encouraged young people to engage with the government. I am inspired to be a part of a group – in this case, the federal government – that impacts every single person living in this country and others around the world.
What are some of your leadership roles and activities around Georgia Tech’s campus?
I was formerly a part of Wreck, Tech’s awesome women’s Ultimate Frisbee team; headed the operations of 3 Day Startup, a business hackathon; and helped establish Spoon University, a journalism-focused club centered on food-related topics on our campus.
I am also an active member of Alpha Kappa Psi, the co-ed professional business fraternity. I have served as our chaplain, vice president of operations, and director of public relations, among others. This organization has shaped my college experience more than any other I have participated in. It has advanced my personal and professional growth and given me a community I can always rely on. If it wasn’t for AKPsi, there’s no way I would have had the confidence necessary to obtain the White House internship.
I am also in the process of starting a nonprofit organization on campus called Sunday Dinner Project (SDP). SDP will bring together groups of people with different perspectives or fundamentally opposing views over a meal to listen to each other and discover the commonalities they share.
Describe your role as an intern at the White House. What is your proudest accomplishment?
I was an intern for White House Operations. I tracked purchases and acquisitions of tens of thousands of dollars of goods and services. I also managed scheduling and logistics of 27 conference rooms serving over 5,000 employees and various stakeholders, triaged requests, and coordinated large events for senior staff members. My proudest accomplishment was my development of two supply chains that streamline the fulfillment of facilities requests and goods and services requests. The supply chains and process maps increased distribution and fulfillment efficiency of furniture, appliances, etc. across the entire White House campus.
What was your favorite experience from living in D.C.?
I was able to get tickets to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in September 2016. It was powerful, educational, and moving, and had a lasting impact on the way I look at the past, present, and future. Anyone visiting D.C. should try to check it out and allot a solid chunk of time to fully immerse themselves in the museum.
Did you get to meet President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama? What was that experience like?
I did, and both experiences were insanely emotional. They are both huge role models for me, and I know they are important guiding lights in many lives around the country and the world. That made me feel inexplicably lucky to be in their presence. Both have an incomparable balance of being both strong and approachable, both preacher and listener.
The president met with all the interns and told us, “Be kind. Be useful. Be fearless.” Mrs. Obama inspired me to continue a career in public service, and she also spoke of her journey personally and professionally and shared with us some of the most important lessons she learned along the way.
Would you recommend the Federal Jackets program to fellow Georgia Tech students, and why?
Absolutely! I was offered an unpaid internship in an expensive city, and I knew that in order to afford the incredibly unique experience I needed to seek outside funding. If it wasn’t for the Federal Jackets Fellowship, I would not have been able to work at the White House at all.
The fellowship was the foundation of the most pivotal four months of my life – opening my eyes to the world of public service. It’s a great outlet for other Georgia Tech students to explore the impact they can have on the government with the support of the Institute behind them.
How has the program enhanced your experience as a Tech student?
The program has hugely enhanced my experience at Georgia Tech because it provided me with the exposure to a diverse group of non-engineering staffers, leaders, and interns who shared with me their personal paths to the White House. I learned more about the value of working with people who think differently and provide perspectives different than my own. It also provided me with more knowledge and unique insight about paths I can take post-graduation, whether that be within the federal government, local government, nonprofits, graduate school, or even the private sector.
What do you see as the role of engineers in public service?
We are impeccable problem solvers. We want to improve, innovate, and create a multitude of things and projects that benefit others. There is a huge space for us within the local, state, and federal government because public servants also want to improve, innovate, and create programs and policies that benefit others. I strongly recommend this Huffington Post article written by a former Stanford engineering student that specifically addresses “Why Public Service Needs Engineers and Scientists.”