Amira Johnson Will Do What She Came Here To Do

Susie CribbsThursday, March 23, 2023

CMU wasn't initially on Amira Johnson's college radar, but once it was she did everything she could to get in and thrive in SCS.

Amira Johnson's life may have taken a completely different turn if she hadn't missed a crucial day in middle school: the one when students pick a club. She'd set her sights on Movie Club, but it was full. Instead, the school put her in Girls Who Code.

"I was like, 'Why? You know, Girls Who Code, that's going to be boring. I don't want to do that,'" said the Pittsburgh native, now a sophomore in the School of Computer Science. "I actually hated science. I didn't think that people who were like me were scientists."

But Johnson went to Girls Who Code, which allows girls in middle and high school to explore programming. The teacher, Miss G., taught them about Arduinos and how to program lights to Christmas music. Johnson loved it.

That one tiny ripple created larger ones that eventually propelled her to Carnegie Mellon University.

Even though she was born and raised mostly in Pittsburgh's Hill District — not far from campus — and attended the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy in Oakland, Johnson never considered CMU one of her college options. The daughter of a University of Pittsburgh graduate, she saw herself as a Pitt girl from an early age. But CMU kept making itself known. Miss G. had ties to CMU, and many of her teachers were alumni. During an app-building challenge called Technovation, Johnson learned her team's mentor went to CMU.

"I thought if all these people went to CMU for computer science or something related to it, then maybe I should go, too," Johnson said.

Finally, Johnson met Phillip Compeau, associate teaching professor and assistant head of CMU's Computational Biology Department, at an event where he was giving a talk about the department's summer precollege program. Johnson spoke to him, and the two developed a connection that continued as she considered her post-high-school options. She eventually enrolled in a summer precollege session at CMU, taking classes for credit and getting a feel for campus life.

After that, Pitt was out. CMU was in.

In her remaining time in high school, Johnson used her science smarts and social savvy to do everything she could to get into CMU. She secured internships with Argo AI and Deeplocal, taught robotics to younger students through the Boys and Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania, organized field trips for those same students to tech companies around the city, and participated in programming competitions that took her to San Francisco and New York City.

Johnson's hard work paid off, and she joined the School of Computer Science in 2021. She's also part of the university's Tartan Scholars program, which CMU created to meet the needs of high-achieving student leaders to help close the resource gap in higher education. Tartan Scholars have access to extra resources like personalized academic coaching and tutoring, and have a strong cohort of peers who take core classes together for support.

That Tartan Scholars support proved an invaluable part of Johnson's CMU story. After finishing high school and applying to colleges during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, being back in the classroom — and a CMU classroom, at that — presented a new set of challenges.

"It was an abrupt shift," Johnson said. "It was school, but school like I had never imagined. Three STEM classes my first semester and most of them, I had never seen anything like it before. It was the real deal. I was not prepared."

After a tough first semester, Johnson dusted herself off and approached the spring with the same kind of energy she used to get in to CMU in the first place. She participated in tutoring, both mandatory and voluntary. She went to office hours. She drew on the support from other SCS Tartan Scholars in the same boat.

"Our first semester was so hard, but Tartan Scholars helped me stay strong and not give up. Because if I'm not the only person who's struggling, then it's not just a me problem," Johnson said. "It's more a question of, is everyone getting the support they need to do well?"

And they are now. Both Johnson and her Tartan Scholars peers in SCS are thriving as sophomores. Johnson relishes the fact that she can casually talk to faculty members about their research or send them a quick email and receive an answer. She fondly recalls walking past Associate Research Professor Rita Singh's office one day and telling a friend about Singh's research, only to have Singh welcome them into her office for a chat. She took a class about robotic looms last semester, can wax poetic about the Biorobotics Lab, and spends a lot of time with friends doing homework at the coffee shop in the Gates Hillman Center.

When she graduates, Johnson hopes to combine her tech savvy with her interest in community engagement to get kids in high school or even middle school interested in computer science. She also sees engagement as a way for CMU to bring people with more diverse backgrounds to SCS.

"Being from inner-city Pittsburgh — going to Pittsburgh Public Schools — the majority of the school was like me. Coming to CMU was definitely a culture shock," Johnson said. "And CMU is right here, but a lot of kids don't even know that it exists. I think the best way to change that is by engaging with those kinds of students, going to those schools, and talking to them about precollege or other programs."

No matter what her future holds, one thing is certain: Johnson will never quit on herself or her dreams.

"I've had a lot of people say that maybe I should change my major. But honestly, I spent all my time in high school trying different internships, summer programs and after-school programs because I wanted to know exactly what I liked when I got to CMU so I could use my time here to really explore that. I had my mind made up. And nobody will convince me otherwise," Johnson said. "To me, it doesn't really matter what anybody else thinks. It's about what I know. And I know it might take me a little bit longer to learn than other people. But I also know at the end of the day, I'm going to get my degree and it's going to be in computer science. And it's going to be from CMU. I'm going to do what I said I came here to do."

Take that, Movie Club.

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