Logo: University of Southern California

Viterbi student rises to vice-chairperson of NSBE

Masters candidate Michael Johnson takes involvement to a national scale

May 22, 2008 —
NSBE vice-chairperson Michael Johnson
As the end of Viterbi member Michael Johnson’s term as chairman of the western region for the National Society of Black Engineers drew to its close this spring, the electrical engineering student had a sigh of relief waiting.
A prolific achiever, Johnson was on the back side of an extremely busy year that saw him start his masters degree, serve in the Air Force Reserves, work at Northrop Grumman and sit at the helm of a major wing of the NSBE. He was hoping to get some time back, act as an advisor to the incoming Region 6 NSBE chair and reclaim a little sanity, the 24-year-old said by phone recently.
But then, at the organization’s national convention last month, Johnson said he found himself re-energized about participating in the society, and when an opportunity arose to run for the post of the NSBE’s national vice chairperson, he jumped. Johnson was elected, and the move made Johnson the society’s number-two official in the nation – setting him up for another very busy year.
“I’ll have some time to sleep when I retire, if that day ever comes,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s election to the post continues his upward trajectory from a place where he once thought he might not ever even see his name on a bachelor’s degree. Starting out at Cal Poly Pomona college after high school, he was quickly on the academic probation list and dropped out of that school, joining the Air Force Reserves, he said. He clawed his way back into school and – almost seven years after he started – he got his first degree. Involvement with the NSBE at the time helped push him to continue his education at USC, and Johnson has hardly looked back since then.
According to some who know him, he may not make that look back for some time. “I have no idea how good he is, where his potential can take him,” said professor Alan Willner, who has taught Johnson in two classes so far. “He has the ability to go anywhere and do anything.” Willner said one of the most magnetic things about Johnson is his innate ability to exude both charisma and humility, while acting as a leader and model engineering student.

“He has enormous amounts of maturity, humility and leadership [abilities],” Willner said. He never has a negative thing to say, and handles his various responsibilities with aplomb, he said. “I wish I could be more like Mike, and I’m being serious,” Willner said. 

But as the NSBE’s national vice chair, Johnson said the pressure has been increased. It requires travel and a greater responsibility as he plays a role in making sure the organization achieves its goals on a large scale, he said. “The national chair is kind of known as the visionary of the society,” Johnson said. “Basically for me I kind of have to serve as the manager and make sure that things get implemented.” Working with the heads of the various regions, Johnson is tasked with ensuring the policies and strategies of the national chair are brought to fruition, he said.
In the meantime, Johnson also has to worry about that other little detail – earning his masters degree in electrical engineering with an emphasis in communication.
“It’s a lot of pressure, but I’m doing what I can do,” he said.
Under the tutelage of professor Willner, Johnson said he will likely even take his education further in Viterbi. “I definitely plan on applying for my Ph.D.,” he said. If he does, he’ll be eligible to run for the NSBE’s highest position next year – a post he said he considered running for this year, before an obligation with the Air Force pulled him away for part of the society’s weeklong national conference.
But a bid for the presidency of the NSBE merely a prospective idea at this point. This year, “Being the best national vice chair I can be,” is his goal. “For now I’ve got to focus on the task at hand,” Johnson said.